20 September, 2009

a kaleidescope of a weekend

Like French women who can tell if a bottle of cognac has been opened in the next room (so my favorite novelist Laurie Colwin tells us), I can tell if a cucumber has been sliced three stories down in my own house. And not, obviously, because I sliced it, but don't you notice that food preparation aromas travel in unpredictable and pleasing ways throughout your house? They do in mine. Slow-cooked lamb with lentils and rosemary halfway to the laundry room, cinnamon from the three-berry crumble lingering on the landing outside my bedroom, crunchy cucumbers at the door to the guest room!

The guest room! Which my dear friend Charlie will occupy this Thursday and Friday, to my intense joy. He was part of my group of best chums in Devon last October, and while we've enjoyed our email and phone relationship, and the fantastic day out at Taste of London last summer, what I think really MAKES a friendship is having a person to stay over, with you, at home. You get to know the person: tea or coffee? Dressing gown or pajamas first thing in the morning? Does he like cats? What cocktail is his preferred tipple? These mysteries and more will be revealed. I am planning a feast for Thursday evening, but as with all my plans, they are subject to change in the middle of each night between now and then, and each tennis game, and each other moment when what passes for my mind is not otherwise occupied. Scallops baked with a duxelles (a sauteed mushroom and madeira concoction) and gooey cheese topping? Or the deceptively simple mushroom soup, also with madeira, and creme fraiche with fresh thyme?

And to follow? I am favoring a super-tender pork tenderloin, grilled expertly by John, having been marinated (the tenderloin, not John, just to clarify) in some herbs sympathetic to those in the starter course... and John's favorite slaw of celeriac, red and Savoy cabbages, with a dressing of sharp Dijon mustard, fromage frais, poppy seeds and lemon juice... At this point Avery wails, "And what can I eat, anyway?" Fair enough. Not scallops or slaw, for sure. But chopped spinach sauteed with garlic and Gruyere? Now you're talking.

But first I have to digest the last 24 hours of stupendous food that's passed my palate. I should space our eating-out adventures a little farther apart, really, than great-dinner-great-lunch. It's a bit of a waste, really. Nevertheless, so it was. John and I had tickets to see John Simms (I'm sorry, but that's how I saw it) onstage and all I can say is, the reviews were split. It must be pointed out that the play in question, "Speaking in Tongues," was on the second night of PREVIEWS, so whatever kinks there were may be worked out. But when the main objections to the play are as pervasive as John's were (let's see, casting, staging, dialogue, plot were among the elements he didn't like), no amount of tinkering is going to help.

John Simms, can we just specify, was wonderful. We agreed on that. But John has laid down the law that he no longer wants to be taken to plays where we've gone merely to watch the actor. He wants to see the play, as well. Fair enough. There were problems to be sure. Simultaneous speaking of dialogue by all four actors, though not EXACTLY together, is bad. A bad idea, cannot be enacted well. It's just massively irritating. All you can hear are the dissonances, and the "him" rather than "her". I argued in my best PhD style that the dissonance was deliberate, to show how all the four characters were unique and yet interchangeable. I was met with resistance.

The plot unfolded in a way that I thought was very clever, not chronological, but out of sequence and illuminating as such. "Oh, THAT'S what happened to her!" John found it precious, and since he didn't care about the characters, he didn't care what happened to them. Ah me.

So I was not flavor of the month last night, based on the play. I was, however, popular as ever for suggesting Kulu-Kulu for sushi before. I had rushed there by bus down Piccadilly, after leaving Avery with friends in Kensington for the evening ("we're walking Bonnie to a Dog Party," my friend assured me, "while we wait for Lille to return from ballet," so I left them to it, dragged by the tiny pug). The traffic! Simply LAGGED but I didn't mind, partly because I could feast my eyes on the gorgeous scenery of Hatchard's, Fortnum and Mason, the Meridien Hotel, the Park Lane Hotel (home of Lord Peter Wimsey, after all). Anyone who's begun to take living in London for granted must simply jump on the Number 9 bus and ride along to Piccadilly Circus. I just adore it, and I had my Julia Child memoir to entertain me as well.

Can I just interrupt myself and say (as I watch the BBC) that I love living in a country where the President of another country is featured PROMINENTLY on the nightly news just because he appeared on five talk shows that morning? My own beloved United States nightly news cannot be bothered, much of the time, to pay attention to the President of any other country at all, unless it's to scare people to death occasionally with vague threats about Iran or North Korea. But here, the news coverage actually delves in depth, on a daily basis, into what is happening around the world. I do admire that.

But more about eating. We dived into salmon with cucumber and daikon, tuna with spicy spring onions, cut rolls of all these combinations, and finally my favorite vegetable dish of all time, freezing cold packed-tight slices of steamed spinach covered with a spicy peanut sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds. I'm SURE I could figure out how to make this, don't you think? I'll look into it.

From there was the play. Enough said. Then we awoke this morning to go slightly separate ways: John to collect Avery from Kensington, me to the kitchen to make her lunch for the riding day, and to concoct tonight's dinner, which had to cook all day by itself, as we were away from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The result was a delicious but unpresentable dish which met with modified rapture. I will tinker with the recipe, but the basics were a leg of lamb, perched on a bed of red lentils and fresh rosemary, surrounded by sliced carrots and my friend Jo's parsnips (thanks, Jo!), onion quarters, and the whole splashed with white wine and chicken stock. The verdict was that the lamb was perfect, cooked tightly covered at 110C all that time. But the vegetables were a mushy, slightly baby-food-ish consistency. Nursery food, invalid food (if one were a very lucky baby or invalid). I'll tinker with it, as I say.

Into the oven it all went, and off we went to meet Avery at her fourth annual Horseman's Sunday. Now, when we first moved here we were completely bemused by the ritual of people - children and adults alike - being willing to organize riding their horses up to the forecourt of a CHURCH to have them blessed by the local priest. Sounds odd, does it? Sadly, it sounds normal to us now. They all gathered and were stepped on, slobbered on, Avery struggled with her stirrups, Mr Nye of the stable (all his 84 years) ordered the girls to have their hair plaited, dogs were constantly underfoot being trodden on. Off we all went to the church, hymns were sung, sermons read, champagne drunk, cakes from local schools sold to support the church. Truly an English phenomenon!

We callously abandoned the ritual for lunch with our friends Ed and Twiggy at Angelus, one of my most favorite restaurants in the world (infrequently as we go out, we go there more often than you'd think). And Ed and Twiggy never fail to delight. I hope I never know them long enough that they lose their newlywed splendor, although it's been years now. They simply bask in each other's presence, and bring their love of life, adventure and friendship to every time we're lucky enough to meet. They are dedicated vegetarians, however, and as such had to avert their eyes from the piece de resistance of our lunch: creme brulee de foie gras. Creamy, unctuously smooth, topped with an impossible-sounding crunch of demerara sugar and black sesame seeds. It is the PERFECT DISH OF ALL TIME. As John's dad would have said, "It's a dish to kill for." Unless one happens to eschew all animal products, that is.

Twiggy had a gorgeous salad of sliced figs with hazelnuts and a generous flourish of mixed baby greens, Ed bravely ordered Eggs Florentine even though they weren't on the menu and... lo, there they were. For my main course I had the most meltingly tender lemon sole meuniere, filleted perfectly and then put together, the two halves, as a real fish. Quite, quite stunning. With capers and tiny brown potted shrimps. MY! John had beef cheeks with mousseline of potato... how we dined. Through it all, as we ate outside, Avery and her friends dashed to and fro, jumping off horses in the mews to bring earrings to be taken care of, lunch detritus to take home, and just to offer a wave and a grin. "Stop growing!" Twiggy ordered sternly. "Right now."

Finally, however, we had to depart for the Gymkhana and take our leave of our pals. We made our way to the ring in Hyde Park and watched as the children jumped, cantered, obeyed the shouted orders of the various semi-adults in charge. As always in these situations, I simply suspend judgment and throw my confidence, undeservedly placed as it may be (but it never is undeserved) behind the powers that be of the Horse World. I alternately sneezed and coughed, having forgotten my antihistamine. "Who's ten years old here?" bellowed Mr Nye in his Barbour and tweeds. "Here is your rosette. Do not let me see it in the dust, young lady. And say "thank you, MR NYE, if you please."

Home finally with filthy, exhausted, dying-of-thirst Avery to throw her into a bathtub and escape to the tennis court. An hour of getting-better-every-day tennis. Not good yet, mind you, on my side, but getting more deserving of John every time we play, which is nearly every day! Have to do something to work off all that foie gras, after all.

Tomorrow will bring Avery's dreaded orthodontist appointment. We have mutually agreed among the three of us that if action is advised this time, a second opinion will be sought. I opt for non-intervention in all medical situations, so clearly I need help in deciding. Poor dear. She'll be consoled by missing BOTH netball and lacrosse, and the dubious joys of seeing me at... Lost Property upon her return to school. It's the sale tomorrow, and the soul quakes.

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