11 January, 2009

something old, something new

Right now the "something old" seems to be ME. The Cough That Ate Hammersmith has rendered me helplessly worn out, this first week back in the saddle. Actually I will not feel properly back in any saddle until Avery returns to school, which happens tomorrow. Then normal life will resume. Last week was remarkable for precisely nothing: unpacking, taking down the TWO Christmas trees (two trees seemed like such a good idea when they were new and fresh, not so very when they showered needles everywhere and refused belligerently to fit into the plastic wrap with which we tried to haul them out the front door). Then we spent some time settling our Christmas belongings here at home, taking naps at odd times of the day, shopping with friends (Westfield Shopping Centre is actually quite bearable on a weekday in January with girlfriends, as opposed to a Saturday before Christmas with a cranky husband), and writing class on Friday. I came away from the session with more suggestions than I can reasonably get my mind around, at least until my child is gainfully employed away from home, tomorrow.

Just a week ago found us at Red Gate Farm closing up the house for the winter, helping Rollie store firewood in the shed, going sledding with Alyssa and her family, Jane and her dad (Jill stayed cozily at home drinking tea and rocking baby Molly), coming home to lunch around the dining room table. Is there anything more heartwarming and savoury than tomatoey, garlicky brisket on a cold, snowy day?

Slow-Braised Brisket
(serves about 8)

1 brisket (corned beef)
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 white onions, sliced
1 large can peeled plum tomatoes
1 bottle beer
1/2 cup dark molasses or treacle

Now, here's the difficult part. Put everything in a heavy stockpot, crushing the tomatoes in your hand as they go into the pot. Cover it and put on a very gentle simmer. DO NOTHING for at least 3 hours. Seriously. That's it. Serve with noodles or mashed potatoes, and a nice skillet full of shredded Savoy cabbage, sauteed in olive oil and garlic, seasoned well.


Not to be missed. Now here is an intriguing question, however. How is brisket different from corned beef? It turns out that brisket is a cut, a part of the animal, while "corned" is a process of curing, usually in salt. So while I bought a brisket, my brisket had been corned (but was still raw), and when I cooked it with my tomatoey method, I called the finished product "brisket." Are you thoroughly confused? Do not despair. All briskets (whether corned or un-corned, flat cut or point cut) have one thing in common: they are a tough, cheap cut of meat and as such need to be catered to, but ONLY in terms of cooking time, not the effort involved. Just keep your brisket on a low, friendly heat with a lid on the pot to keep the sauce from reducing, cook it a long, gentle time, and you're in business. It is meltingly tender and a real crowd-pleaser.

Sadly, at the same lunch I learned a hard lesson about my starter, the lovely Christmas oyster stew about which I raved before. Two lessons, actually. Never ever let it freeze, and after that, never ever EVER let it boil. Because mine did, and I'll apologize here on my public forum (since one is never meant to apologize at the time of eating, at one's own table) for the grainy, separated nature of the soup. The flavor was still ambrosial, but once the freezing or boiling (or, dash it all, both) processes have had their way with the broth, it will never be creamy and perfect again. I'll admit it, I took my oyster stew for granted and didn't coddle it. I went sledding, callously, and left it on a hot stove to suffer as it might. Never again.

From that day, so peaceful and pleasant and leisured (Alyssa and her family kindly helped to denude our lovely tree of its ornaments, leaving just the lights to comfort us over the end of the holiday), life got put on fast-forward. We were up at the crack of dawn, actually in the dark, to jump in the car and drive to Becky's house in Greenwich, there to leave the car and be driven by my saintly friend to the Stamford train station, there to jump on the slow train to Washington, D.C.

John's mom had pulled every favor she ever had with her good friend Jane, a behind-the-scenes Republican party faithful, to get us a private tour of, if you can believe it, BOTH the West Wing of the White House AND the House of Representatives. It was truly stunning to poke our heads into the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room and the Press Room, to sit in the very seats occupied by the Justices of the Supreme Court at the State of the Union Address. One prevailing theme hovered over our entire tour: everything was so much smaller in person that it looks on telly! I think cameras must do a sort of panoramic sweep of these rooms, making them look imposing and intimidating, because to the naked eye they are quite cozy and intimate. But massively impressive. All of Washington was overlaid with a sense of anticipation: giant scaffolding projects in front of the Capitol Building and the White House, ready for the inauguration on the 20th.

And we WALKED. From the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, imagining all that square footage FILLED with people in a couple of weeks. Our tour guide for the House said wryly, "Let's hope for sunshine, because there are no umbrellas allowed in the public."

The most touching thing, and perhaps the most unexpected, about both our tour guides and all the staffers we saw running around with IDs and clipboards was their extreme YOUTH. One example in particular put our age into perspective. When the House tour guide was walking through the underground tunnel with us from one building through to the Capitol, I asked where he'd gone to school. "Wabash," he said, smiling, and I said "My gosh, we went to DePauw! Old rivals, right?" and he said, "Oh, my mom went to DePauw. Maybe you knew her, class of 1980... well, 1980 something." For heaven's sake, when did we get to be people who might know someone's MOTHER?

It was an overwhelmingly American series of days, more flags than you've ever seen in one place waving proudly, lots of uniformed and other types of officials, all having sworn one oath or another of loyalty and service. And dinner! We went both nights to the Old Ebbitt Grill, a bastion of good old-fashioned American food bought by local producers. Buffalo wings with celery and blue cheese dressing! The best calamari this side of Roc in Tribeca, and best of all, a dozen oysters on the half shell to share with John. Loud voices, boys chatting up girls over a beer, dark shining wood, jolly barman.

And the luxury of spending time with John's mom, having her all to ourselves. She and Avery were roommates in a room adjoining ours and we simply hung out each evening after we'd walked ourselves into a state of collapse. All too soon it was time to catch our train back to Connecticut, sadly leaving Nonna to her airplane flight later in the afternoon.

We spent the Monday (goodness, only a week ago!) packing up, flying out, and here we are. Awaiting whatever adventures 2009 will bring: Lost Property, getting better at tennis, working on my book, finding somewhere to volunteer, learning to drive (ouch). Happy New Year, everyone! Next post: a savoury pastry shell flavoured with fresh thyme and filled with crabmeat, goats cheese, scallions, cream. Recipe to follow, as soon as I've paid my dues at the skating rink...


casey said...

It all sounds lovely.Looking forward to the crabmeat recipe.

Kristen In London said...

check out my latest post for the recipe!