31 August, 2009

Rock in Cornwall







































Let's see: we've recovered from all our adventures, no more jet lag, no more sense of being a cup filled with a cup and a half of olive oil, stuffed with garlic and overflowing onto the counter! I'm sorry if that sounds odd, but it's how I felt for the past two or three days. Now I'm sleeping a normal amount (although I stayed up FAR too late last night on the telephone, perfectly delightful, to my mother in law, the usual thing after we get back from America and she's accepted the fact that we're away again). We played tennis twice today, enjoying one of the most beautiful blue-sky days ever in London: a Red Gate Farm day, really. Warm, joyous, the tennis courts filled with teenagers shouting the score, children infuriating their instructors, couples flirting under cover of "Was mine in?" and "Love all." So we tried for a long game in the morning but were kicked off by people wise enough to book a court.

Then it was off to Westfield for a sushi lunch. That's one of the few things I really miss while I'm in America for the summer, and lord knows if I tried I could find some sushi, but in Southbury, Connecticut? No thank you. I had a couple of sublime bites at the Japanese steakhouse in West Hartford with Jill and Joel. But not enough! Lunch was lovely: salmon with dill, coriander, tuna, a couple of rolls with avocado. We stopped before we wanted to, which was virtuous.

A second tennis game before dinner made us feel even more virtuous and therefore we greatly overate at dinner, but too bad. It was a good, old-fashioned nourishing dinner, cheap and complexly flavored, my first attempt at chilli. It was inspired by the gorgeous dish left for us at Christmas by my friend Judy, and it was she who provided me with the very American seasoning.

Chilli con Carne
(serves 4)


1 lb. lean beef mince
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
1 soup-can chopped or diced tomatoes, NOT drained
1 can each: red kidney beans, fava beans, cannellini beans, NOT drained
1 package McCormick Chilli Seasoning
1/2 tsp chilli powder
loads of fresh ground black pepper
salt to taste
shredded Cheddar cheese
sour cream or fromage frais

This dish could not be easier, simpler, quicker or cheaper. Simply brown the beef in a heavy-bottomed pot, then add everything else and simmer for at least an hour, very low, stirring occasionally. Adjust the chilli powder and salt as you like. Serve with cheese and sour cream on top.

*********************

To balance the richness of this main dish, we had John's absolute favorite slaw: celeriac, red cabbage and Savoy cabbage. Honestly, he could eat his WEIGHT in that slaw, with a spicy dressing of poppy seeds, mustard, lemon juice and olive oil.

We're eating our way through a list of foods that Avery doesn't like, so last night was mixed seafood: scallops, king prawns and sardines, all from our day in Cornwall. Tomorrow will be spicy Szechuan chicken with chillis and peanuts. Then... She'll be home! And let me tell you, whatever she wants to eat, I'll provide it. We've missed her so much.

But we can't possibly wish her home early, because she is having the TIME OF HER LIFE. Annie texted John this afternoon to say that her surfboard lesson was a success and she stood up! And then she kindly emailed me this evening to say she actually got a photograph of her doing so! Thrilling. We can say with impunity that the longer one is able to stay in Rock, Cornwall with Annie and her family, the better: at least for the guests, if not for Annie, who must be completely exhausted: 12 for dinner last night, 8 of them children! But if I know Annie (and I do), she is in her element, if also wiped out. She is one of those energized people who gets her thrills from people, loads of plans exploding here and there, meals to prepare, things to give to the people around her. And aiding and abetting her is her delicious husband Keith, who is that rarest of men who is as fond of cooking as his wife is! So between the two of them, course after delicious course appear.

We ourselves appeared last Thursday, after a five-hour drive of first enormous boredom as we got out of London and the Heathrow Metropolitan Area (although it's so lovely in comparison to, say, the JFK or Newark area that I should bite my tongue). Soon, however, the landscape was quite lovely, the Devon countryside making me nostalgic for my writing course spent there in October. Then we reached Cornwall and got excited. Shrubs looking like the seashore, exotic arrangements of windmills dotting the countryside here and there! And then we came upon Rock in Cornwall, a gorgeous, lowkey, subtly luxurious, definitely relaxed enclave on the Southern coast of England. It's called the "St Tropez" of England, or the "Kensington of Cornwall," since apparently only the BEST people go there! We knew that already because Annie and her family were there.

We had no sooner arrived, hugged everyone and thrown our suitcases into our bedrooms than we were instructed to leap into swimming costumes and off we went to the beach! No matter that skies were dark grey, winds were high. No, no problem there! We simply got into the car and went up and down the winding roads of Rock, arriving at a massive beach, stretching out into infinity, with a makeshift sandy parking lot simply COVERED with vehicles, camping tents and shivering British people, all laughing and talking nineteen to the dozen about the surf. And surf there was! White in the distance, the sea filled with leaping and bounding wet people, ALL in wetsuits except for we four adults, for whom it seemed to be a matter of pride to be uncovered and vulnerable. The more fools we! It was FREEZING! We attached body boards to our wrists (mine perhaps a bit too assiduously as, an hour later, my hand was purple!), and into the surf we went.

OUCH, SCREAMING AGONY, then WAIT, this is FUN!

The whole experience took me back to childhood summers in South Carolina where the surf was about three thousand degrees warmer, and the sun shone, but never mind: the waves were the same, and the body board simply the most fun ever. You wait for the perfect wave (getting it wrong a lot of the time, if you're me), then flop onto your stomach onto the board and simply FLOW up the beach, running into other people, laughing, screaming, generally insane! Simply the most fun you can have in the ocean. Avery had accepted a wetsuit but eschewed a body board, and so her dear friend Emily kindly stayed with her, the two of them bouncing and laughing and getting soaking wet. John, of course, went out as far as he could go, with Fred (basking in the glory of his massively impressive GCSE results, well done, Fred!) and Keith. Annie and I leapt around together, she with a glowing smile and face dripping wet with surf and RAIN, shouting in glee, "This is me, in my element!"

I loved it, until... it was time to walk back up the enormous, endless beach in the WIND, with the bodyboard flapping against my legs. I gradually lost the use of my lips, so just let intrepid Annie and John chat, as Annie's daughter Cornelia dashed ahead, somewhat erratically, to open the car and have towels ready. By the time we got there, my hand and in fact my entire body were purple, I could hardly believe life could be so cold in August! Home, for the most welcome shower of my life. Just heaven to get clean and warm, even if I was a bit taken aback by the various seaweeds, rocks and sand that emerged in the shower from my swimming costume!

Cups of tea all round, and then talk of dinner began, with cocktails and my bean dip, and Annie's special salami, plus olives, breadsticks. The appearance of food always makes me happy. Keith began to get dinner properly ready, and the rain cleared and a magical light began to steal across the landscape. "Keith, darling," Annie began, "I'd really like to take Kristen and John for that beach walk, they have only the one evening... do I have time? An hour?" So off we went, across a golf course set against quite the most saturated sunset against beach that you can imagine, then down dunes into the beach, and walking along the River Camel, a tidal river like the Thames, across which glittered the lights of Padstow. "We'll go there tomorrow on the ferry," Annie explained, and we walked the length of the beach, gathering slates (me, for what purpose I do not know, but I came away with a lovely pile of them), talking real estate (John) and the history of the area (Annie). Finally we came up again into the little town and came across Avery and Emily, ready for a ride home!

Can I just say: we arrived back home to find the table beautifully set, the children already fed with mozzarella-stuffed meatballs, and the adults' plates all set out with a half a steamed lobster each, a wedge of lemon, a bowl of Keith's homemade mayonnaise, bowls of tomatoes, cucumber, everything one could wish. And then, his coup de grace, my maiden voyage with clams! And I am so glad to be able to say, I like clams. Especially when wrenched from the local sand just hours before dinner... I've given you the recipe just as it was given to me, Keith-style.

Keith's Linguini alle Vongole
(serves 4)


Heat 2 fl oz of good olive oil, soften 2 chopped cloves of garlic in it on a low heat for 5 minutes; remove from heat and add half a chopped and deseeded red chilli and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley.

Meanwhile cook linguine or spaghetti for 6 mins til still VERY al dente, drain and stir in some olive oil to prevent from sticking.

In the hot pan, add 2 fl oz of dry white wine, bring to boil, throw in cleaned clams, tip the spaghetti in on top, and jam on the lid. Allow to steam for 5 mins until the clams have opened and the pasta is cooked but still al dente.

Stir in the oil, chili, parsley, garlic mixture till well combined and tip into a serving bowl.

********************

Simply heavenly: tender clams no doubt better than any I will ever have again. It's like my first sushi experience, at... Nobu. Downhill from there, forever.

And we played Karaoke! I have never before, and I would have, until that evening, laid down my life on the argument that John never EVER would, EVER, but I hadn't counted on one essential component to his personality: COMPETITION. If you can compete for it, it turns out, he will. Even do something completely contrary to his personality, which shies away seriously from anything smacking of performance. No, if you can add up numbers and give some to some people and more to others, no matter how idiotic the task at hand, he'll do it, gladly, and more than once. Hilarious! Abba, Tears for Fears, Duran, Duran! Too, too funny.

I have not mentioned Avery, almost at all. Guess why? Once she and Emily were reunited, we were of about as much interest to her as... Karaoke was to John until he tried it. She was so happy, after her summer of adults, to be with her close friend, that we were rendered completely useless to her. Which is FINE.

The next morning found everyone at the breakfast table, eating "eggy bread" (French toast), cereal and yogurt, consuming vast amounts of tea and coffee. Keith reached for a cereal bowl and Annie snatched it from him, pointing with mock severity at the kitchen clock. "Breakfast is from 8:30 to 9:30 and it's 9:30!" He grabbed it back, saying recalcitrantly, "It's 9:28, give that back," and he managed to get a bowl or at least a few bites in before we were all ready to run off to the ferry.

Along the winding road again, Annie pointed out the various memorable homes (one belonging to Jemima Khan!), and I noticed, as I had the day before, that nearly all the house names began with either "Tre", "Pol", or "Pen." Why on earth? Fred, with his GCSE hat on, guessed perhaps these were prefixes like the Irish "O'" or Scottish "Mac"? When I came home I looked it up, and found out that each of these prefixes is the old Cornish indication of "home of," and would then be followed by the family name, resulting in "Treleven," etc. It's a language dominated by "home of," rather than "son of," as in "Hendrickson." Very interesting!

Of course, on the way to the ferry, the skies simply OPENED and we were soaked to the skin, but only on our fronts! The winds protected our backs, and gradually, anyway, we dried off. But my hair, my hair! We reached the ferry with only seconds to spare, to find that inside were our girls, who had left home ten minutes or so earlier! What a delight, that ferry ride, across the river, moving from one arable coast to another built-up coast, and the town of Padstow, dominated by the fishy (and I mean just FISH) commercial interests of one Rick Stein, England's foremost fish chef, arguably. I mean, he would argue it, I think. "Goodness, this town is just overwhelmed by... Rick Stein!" I marvelled to Keith, who said ironically, "Yes, it's normally called 'Padstein.'" There's a gatrillion-dollar restaurant, which we passed and I remarked to Fred, not at all originally, "Let's eat here, just for the halibut," which he repeated with glee and all the enthusiasm of a person hearing a really old joke for the first time. God love a young man.

Then there's the patisserie, and his wife's home furnishings shop, and finally the pasty shop and deli where we retrieved our lunch! The jury is still out with me regarding pasties, which are traditional Cornish treats of a flaky, buttery pastry filled, turnover style, with meat, cheeses, what have you. What had I was smoked haddock and double cream, and while the filling was tasty, it took at least three bites to discover any haddock, and while John's steak pasty was also delicious, the steak was in small proportion to the potatoes and onions. Now, this tendency may be part of the essentially peasant (or fisherman) derivation of the dish, in which the expensive ingredients are less plentiful than the fillers. I wouldn't mind, if I could cozy up to the idea of pastry a bit more than I usually do, trying some other fillings. I thought of a classic "crispy duck" filling of roast duck, cucumbers, spring onions and hoisin sauce. Maybe someday?

We picked these up at the deli and ate them on the quayside, on a stone retaining wall as you see, chatting, peeling off layers of clothing that had seemed so welcome minutes before! Then off on the ferry again, back to Rock. I must say, Padstow was lovely, very picturesque (and the girls and Fred bought massive amounts of local fudge), but I greatly prefer the quiet of Rock.

We went off again then to the beach: the boys and girls to body surf again, but Annie very kindly went with me beachcombing: she to find little tiny cowrie shells to add to her collection, housed in a bowl in her London house. I myself found some fragments of shells for which I have a very special purpose, but I cannot reveal this until Avery comes home. I'm working on it tomorrow. Beachcombing is one of my favorite activities: you didn't realize until you FOUND it, how much you wanted something! We were taken aback, unawares, by one particular wave, and SMASH! Soaked to our underwear.

We met the surfers, shivering and ready for a shower, on the beach, and drove home, then Annie and I were off for my most favorite occupation (next to beachcombing and eating Keith and Annie's food, and hugging Avery, and...): food shopping. This place is heaven. A proper butcher, a proper fishmonger, Dennis Knight, a fabulous cheese counter at one of the local all-purpose shops, and a great place to find little presents for the little (not so) girl on your list, Mooch. I did not get any definitive answers on the nagging question on my mind, namely, "What do Cornish Game Hens have to do with Cornwall," since no one in Cornwall seems ever to have heard of them, nor in all of England from what I can find out, and yet they are popular little poultry items in the United States. It was but the work of a moment to come home and look them up. Turns out: somewhere in the mists of time they might have come from breeding something from Cornwall from something else feathered, but the main point of them now is that they're heavily breasted and tiny-legged, and one serves a person nicely.

What I was sold, at the Rock butcher, was something called a guinea fowl, intensely dark in color, larger than a game hen but smaller than a roasting chicken. Why not? I like things that people tell me I'll like, generally, so home it came with me. It's in the freezer, as it came, until such time as Avery's home and ready to try something new.

We got home laden with provisions, I nicked some rosemary from the ENORMOUS bushes at the cottage (that's what you get when you rent a cottage from a landscape gardener), and with hugs and kisses all round (very tight from Avery), we were off. How wrenching to say goodbye to her! My consolation was that she was deep in laughter with the O'Shaugnessy children, who had just arrived, and the father was giving a rotten but hilarious imitation of some Mexican man saying "there will be no paella tonight," so she was obviously happy and occupied.

And home we went, bereft but very happy at her welcome in that house, overflowing with fun, generosity, great food (they were having spatchcocked barbecued chickens for dinner), love and adventure... Thank you, Annie and Keith. It's great to know Cornwall is there, and something tells me we'll be back.

28 August, 2009

my personal shuttle

































More tomorrow, perhaps, but just to say how ODD it is to have spent today on one side of the Atlantic, beachcombing in magical Rock, Cornwall, with one of my closest friends, and to have spend LAST Friday in the exact same way, on quite the OTHER side of the Atlantic with ANOTHER of my closest friends. What kind of life is that? A very lucky one, for starters. A couple of photographs to set the scene, then I must to sleep, as only two days ago I had just returned from America and I am still feeling overwhelmed... can't seem to remember what beloved people are where, what bed I'm meant to wake up in (and I don't intend that in the very exciting way it sounds!). I keep finding myself struggling to remember who I left where, what conversation I had with whom, and we didn't even do any drugs! It's just life that's leaving me shattered. But in a good way, and I'll be back in the saddle, no doubt, by tomorrow afternoon, especially since Avery just called, in a most grownup way, to ask how our drive was! Leaving her in Cornwall... a wrench. But she's with Annie, so all is right with the world. My world at least. Have a lovely Bank Holiday weekend, everyone.

26 August, 2009

the sky leads home
























One glorious afternoon in New Jersey, one evening at Heathrow, one night flight, one luggage-heavy taxi-ride later, and we're back home, safe in London.

Dare I say it, we're also unpacked, settled in, Avery's ENTIRE closet emptied because precisely NOTHING fits her after this Year of Intense Growth Outward and Upward. I sent her upstairs with her suitcase to "unpack," only immediately to hear a pathetic wail, "But my closet is already full, and NOTHING fits me!" So upstairs for the sad task of taking away many beloved garments: the plaid Burberry wrap-around skirt her besotted father bought for her at Selfridges several Christmases ago, the gorgeous Rachel Riley white Capri pants that served for just a few seasons, the t-shirt I adored that said, "YOU WISH..." on the front and "You could ride like a girl" on the back, with a darling pony illustration. Childhood in cotton knit.

Yesterday saw us with our irreplaceable friends in New Jersey, mimicking for an afternoon the perfect Fourth of July nearly two months ago, now. Livia and I set the table out on the screened porch (my dream is to have such a luxury, the outdoors without bugs), and we tucked into gazpacho, and sandwiches of ham, turkey, pumpernickel bread, lettuce and homemade Russian dressing. Most important, we finally got the perfect photograph of Avery with Janice. This photo makes me cry every time I see it. Avery's lifetime, our entire married life, spent in friendship with this wonderful woman! Everything, practically, that I know about hostessing, about being hospitable, welcoming, has come to me from this lady.

How she and Avery adore each other, being extra grandmother and extra grandchild to one another. "Darling girl, tell me about the horses you have been riding this summer, and how is school?" In her turn, Livia (no fan of small children, nor am I in general) casually brings out a stack of books. "Take a look at this one, where Sherlock Holmes is only ONE of the important characters, and another is a 15-year-old girl," and Avery was smitten at once. Avery is chary with her affections, giving her love to a small number of people she has learned to trust. And even though so much of their relationship has been spent apart, there is a deep well of love among these three ladies, separated by perhaps 75 years in age (one does not ask!) that makes me very, very happy.

Livia went AWOL for the afternoon from her job, and we simply sat around and TALKED. The fan in the white kitchen whirred, the leaflets and brochures from their recent cruise came out, in a blatant attempt to sell us on accompanying them next year. We ate cookies, drank coffee, talked about our summer, the differences between the English and American characters. A quick glimpse of the feral cat and her three kittens that Livia and Janice have been feeding on their back porch... Avery crouching, putting out her hand, sure she can "whisper" them into sociability. Given more than a few hours, I'm sure she could. Then all too soon it was time to leave. Hugs all round, exhortations to stay in touch, to make plans at Christmastime. "Darling Other Mother," I say, hugging her as closely as I can, believing firmly that one should have as many mothers as one can. "And my own Other Daughter," she laughs, "How we will miss you." A love composed mostly of saying goodbye, these days. But better than nothing...

And so, after a cozy, dark, nighttime flight, we are back! Grey skies, sprinkling rain, yes, it's home. All the cats milling around looking MUCH larger than when we left them in July (a combination of the contrast with the tiny summer kittens and also the lack of exercise I'm sure they've experienced, with no family to chase up and down the stairs of the house!). We unpacked quickly to get it over, I hate unpacking. Revelled in the Quixotic but useful machinations of our cleaning lady, who likes to organize kitchen pantry items by size, not category, so porcini mushrooms rub shoulders with black beans and Nasi Goreng paste, because they're all... the same height tins and jars. Same with our clothes: all the black things I own (and they are many) are stacked together: shirts, sweaters, leggings, trousers. Because... they're black. No matter, I'm thrilled to see everything in such perfect order.

After unpacking and eating a desultory lunch of lentils and tuna (my cupboard and fridge are BARE!), I succumbed to a nap, Avery to a marathon bath, and John to who knows what financial machinations keep him happy and awake. Then to the supermarket in the spitty London rain for provisions: mozzarella, chorizo, mushrooms, peppers, red onions, sausages, and ROCKET! Proper ROCKET, with that beloved snappy bite I have missed all summer. Rocket! I made pizza dough, pizza sauce, sliced and chopped, marinated and roasted chicken wings with a yogurt and parsley dipping sauce. We all assembled our pizzas, they baked, we ate, and then... started to fall apart. Everyone to bed early, disbelieving, as always, that we have left one complete life behind to start up another. It will take all of a week or so for it to feel normal.

This adjustment will be compounded by the fact that tomorrow, we drive Avery to Cornwall to spend a week with her beloved and much-missed Emily and family! John and I will spend one night and then head back to London to do... I know not what, on our own for a few days. Then everyone will come back for the start of school. And normal life... resumes. Just for now, for this evening surrounded by grateful, purring cats, the dishwasher humming in the background, everyone but we sound asleep: we're home. Leaving behind another home country diminished by the sad death of Edward Kennedy, a true Democrat. We'll try to help Avery understand that legacy, as complex as it was. It's intriguing how England is mourning his loss, considering the mixed-up relationship the English had with his Irish loyalties. How lucky we are to live with both these cultures, and how difficult it is to try to understand both. We'll give it our all, as usual, and let you know.

24 August, 2009

the last day




















Well, we're in that unpleasant, cranky stage of leaving that entails massing huge numbers of books on the stairway ("Can somebody carry those upstairs when you go next? AND the pair of shoes next to them, please"), ripping labels from previous journeys off the suitcases, monitoring what's in the dryer, making beds with fresh sheets to greet us at Christmas, trying to decide between air conditioning while we pack and the dishwasher. Everyone is annoyed. "But I DID tidy my room, only now it's messy again from having shifted books and clothes to pack or not pack..." "Are we REALLY out of paper towels??" "I know I told you where the car key was!" and "Can you possibly eat this hard-boiled egg before we leave, or do I have to throw it away?" Throwing away food at this point of pre-departure makes me crazy. As a result, our dinner was bizarre: crab salad with celery, tomato and mozzarella and an avocado, plus corn on the cob and some stale Triscuits...

Partway through this dubious feast, Judy and Rollie appeared to say goodbye, give Avery a CARE package for the flight (some lovely puzzles and chocolates, thank you!), and sat with us, watching us eat our weird dinner, having had their much more normal repast earlier ("we were sure you'd have finished!"). We gossiped, told stories by candlelight, watched Avery not eat (her appetite still not returned after her fever over the weekend). Judy and I decided for SURE where the Christmas tree would go (definitely for sure) now that we've changed around the rooms... They took their leave, signaling the true end to summer, as much a blow as that from Anne, David and Alice's departure with Katie yesterday afternoon.

This neighbor foursome turned up while I was sitting with Avery at her chicken soup lunch yesterday, and said their goodbyes, so sad. "Katie will have changed so much by Christmas," I mourned, hugging her for real, instead of just holding her as I usually do... Alice listened to the terrible "E above middle C" on our incorrigible piano, Anne gave Avery one more hug, and they were gone... I ran across one more time to give Dave "Bread and Jam for Frances," for Kate, and then Anne ran across one more time to return a dish to me and give a final hug, taking our leftover coffee with her! That's our friendship in a nutshell: shared children, coffee, dishes. We looked across at little Kate, balancing herself against the screen door across the road, shouting, "Bye, bye, bye..." "This is so sad," Anne moaned. The phrase of the last couple of days, every summer it is repeated.

How funny it is, that invisible line between one day and "the last day." Two days ago we were happily hosting our across-the-road-crowd for a gorgeous salmon dinner, upon our return from Fire Island. We raced in from the Island, unpacked groceries, checked with everyone to see if they were cool with coming when Avery had a fever (she would be cloistered upstairs, but still, with a baby it's worth asking), and YES. So home I went to sprinkle an enormous side of salmon with olive oil and the irreplaceable Fox Point Seasoning from Penzey's, quite the best way to cook most things besides brownies, in my humble opinion. Only at the last minute, John at the grill discovered that our supply of propane had run out, precisely one day too early. DRAT.

Except that we made a discovery (as so many culinary adventures turn out). Fox Point with salmon is perfect in the oven. Here you go.

Baked Salmon with Fox Point Seasoning
(serves six)


1 large side of salmon (about 3 pounds)
2 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsps Fox Point Seasoning

With your clean hands, smear the salmon, skin side down, flesh side up, with olive oil, then sprinkle with Fox Point. Leave to reach room temperature before you slide the salmon onto a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil (super easy cleanup). Bake at 425F (210C) for 25 minutes. SUBLIME.

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We served this with cucumber salad with sour cream, dill and lime juice, and Alyssa's cheese-dripping corn on the cob, and sauteed asparagus. A FEAST. One final evening with them, starting out with dinner on the terrace with candles, then as the bugs found us, we repaired inside for Ciao Bella Key Lime Graham Cracker gelato, a present from Anne and David, a superb follow-on from salmon. So good, so simple. We simply shouted with laughter over various stories from the summer, including John's explanation of why we can no longer close the sun roof on our 10-year-old Passat, now at 97,000 miles. "Mice made homes in the mechanism, which means they stole insulation from everywhere they could find it," he said, "plus taking all the workings out of the radio and the antenna." "Which means," Dave said, "that all the radio will play is 'Alvin and the Chipmunks.'"

The following day found us beginning to acknowledge that the end of summer had come. John was sifting through piles of papers, insurance, bills, contracts, financial thises and thats. I was sifting through kitchen supplies: to save or not to save the half-used wild rice, where to store the sugar and flour... Avery was drifting around feeling almost-not-ill. And we were all getting ready for the last evening with Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly. The adults in the group had asked for "those ribs in tomato sauce that you did last year," so I quickly emailed my friend Olimpia to ask for her recipe. Which I messed with a bit, because I was also in the mood for meatballs. Gorgeous.

Olimpia's Spare Ribs and Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
(serves 10 easily)


2 tbsps olive oil
24 pork spare ribs
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small white onion, minced
1 cup red wine
1 large can tomato sauce
1 large can peeled plum tomatoes

for meatballs:
1 1/2 lbs ground pork
3 eggs
2/3 cups breadcrumbs
1 tbsp Italian seasoning

So here's what I did. Following Olimpia's instructions, I heated the olive oil in a heavy, very large pot and browned the ribs all over, on all sides. Then I added the garlic, onion and red wine and simmered, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Then I added all the tomato bits and covered the pot and simmered, NO MORE than a simmer, for 3 hours.

Then I mixed all the meatball ingredients as you would a dough (take off your rings) until it was nice and mixed, clean and consistent throughout. Form into medium balls (I think my mixture made about 15), and drop one by one into the tomato sauce, filled with ribs. Don't try to stir yet. Cover the pot and simmer for half an hour, at which point the meatballs will be cooked enough for you to stir the pot. Stir it up gently, mixing up the ribs and the meatballs. The whole thing can sit nicely, covered, indefinitely until dinner.

**************

This with some garlic bread was dinner. The Three Js and One M arrived in a gathering sort of threatening sky. It didn't take long for Joel to suggest gently, as I set the table outside, "Don't you think that was thunder, Kristen?" "DEFINITELY NOT," I rejoined, in no uncertain terms. I continued to put out tealights, grated cheese, you name it. Avery was roused from her bed of continuing sort of mini-illness to run a course of jumps with her darling cousin Jane, while Molly sat on my lap and gestured toward whatever she could see. John and Jill repaired to discuss things of financial moment while Joel fed Molly and the sky, I am sorry to say, darkened alarmingly. "Are you sure you want to eat outside? I'd really love to see what your dining room is like now, we've never used it before." He's too kind not to phrase it in the form of a question. "It is NOT going to rain," I maintained, while making salad dressing.

"It's seriously going to rain," Joel finally said, and I looked up at the sky. Avery and Jane were still jumping, under light that was, I had to admit, green. OK, OK, OK. Just in case, I'll bring in the plates and napkins. The skies opened. It simply POURED. "Aren't you glad we're inside?"

It WAS cozy. I admit it.

The last evening with our family. Jane sat on my lap, then leapt down to sit with Avery. We all ate more ribs and meatballs than we could ever have predicted. Molly learned to crawl, with John as her enthusiastic coach, but the cleanliness of my parlor floor was not all that could have been wished for. I concur with my friend Shelley's explanation for the unbelievable level of dust in my house: it comes UP from the floor, not just DOWN from the feet that come in!

Jane repaired to a bath, in the serene atmosphere of the guest bathroom, while we cleared up dinner and Avery slumped somewhere, trying to be normal when she really still felt like a piece of Romaine lettuce that's been left out too long in the air. Jill cheerfully dealt with Jane as she splashed, Joel laughed with Molly in the kitchen. We all felt that we did not want to say goodbye, since it was for four whole months. Jane hugged me tightly, saying, "You smell like Red Gate Farm," which I chose to interpret as something like candlelight, good food and Hermes. John said prosaically, "Probably mothballs and dust." Probably, but I can still dream. Off they went. Until Christmas. How we will miss them all, and how Molly will have changed in four months when we see her again.

This summer has been so much about getting to know Avery every day as she changes so quickly, shopping, chatting, exchanging book ideas, thoughts on family and friends, menu ideas. She left London as still a little girl, but will be returning as a young lady. I have treasured so much these weeks of time together! Not the least sharing her wonderfully inventive project of fostering those kittens. Newsflash: Little Dorrit and Nemo were adopted successfully! By the family who took them "just to babysit" on Thursday evening. The phone message said joyfully, "This is Katie. We've fallen in love with both kittens and will keep them both. Thank you so much!" What a huge triumph for Avery, to take kittens who could hardly be touched a month ago, and turn them into kittens that a family could not resist for 24 hours! Bless her little kitten-whispering heart.

Today was all about doing "everything for the last time till next summer," an annual ritual we've all got used to. The last trip to the library, our last tennis game (my strange foot thingy resolved itself a bit in time to play), the last "Days of Our Lives" lunch, the last afternoon spent folding laundry while watching "General Hospital," then a phone call from Becky to catch up, to say goodbye one last time. And I ran to Judy and Rollie's to drop off the leftover barbecued pork from last night which I was pretty sure would find favor with hungry young farmers as opposed to the rubbish heap. As I recounted to Judy how we were trying to use up refrigerator bits and bobs, she said quickly, "Well, I have some barbecued pork from a friend who just dropped it off, if you need it..." That's Judy. I almost fell for it. "Well, I happen to know she CAN'T COOK, so don't eat it," I advised.

And the last trip to the pool for Avery and me while John ran countless last errands which required mnemonic devices for him to remember: "Cable, post office, corn, propane..."

We swam to and fro, me in a new cute tankini donated by Alyssa! How cool to have a new swimsuit on the last day of summer, and purple and black, no less. Thanks, friend. The sky was blue, the pines were green, the radio blared, the chlorine was killing. Avery and I gloried in the repertoire that spells "All that it should be, all that is summer."

Tomorrow at this time we'll be in midflight to London, and all the unnameable and unsavory details that are Getting Back Home, like unpacking (awful!), Going Through Mail (never pleasant!), Seeing What Went Wrong (like dead plants, or worst case scenario, cats who did something bad somewhere). The flip side will be our happy reunion with our kitties, our neighborhood, our trip to Cornwall. More from the other side of The Pond, very soon. Goodbye, summer.

23 August, 2009

life, the Fire Island way















































































I know, I know, it's an awful lot of photos, but it was SO BEAUTIFUL in so many different ways that only this motley assortment can represent to me our 24 hours on New York's most beautiful island. And no, I'm not prejudiced, I'm merely speaking from my vast experience of... OK, just this one New York island, but trust me, it's nirvana. Or maybe that's only if you visit Alyssa there.

Of course I must digress and confess that the day since our departure has been, well, all too eventful. Poor Avery came home from our morning excursion on the beach saying, "I'm just not feeling my best," and I could hear its echo from summers past. Not one summer passes without her Twenty-Four Hours of Doom, characterized by a reasonless, low or high, summer fever. Thank goodness the Fates chose our departure day rather than our arrival day for her short-lived malaise. So she has spent the day huddled up in the car or on her bed, suffering bravely. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We hopped on the ferry at Bay Shore on a hot, hazy Friday. After buying our tickets, we succumbed to fried mozzarella and Cajun fries at Nicky's Clam Bar, and so should you! The fry guy behind the counter said, "I'll trade you all that stuff for that cake you got there in your bag," gesturing to my lemon bars, a present for Alyssa and family. "I can't do that, but I'll pay you," I said, and then when he gave us our food, I cut off a brownie-sized piece of lemon bar and gave it to him. "You didn't need to do that! I was just joking!" he blustered in embarrassment, so I waved and went on to eat our fried treats. After them, however, I craved a piece of peppermint gum, so back I went to Nicky's, and bought my gum. "You're the lady... that was the BEST THING I ever ate!" he exploded. "I'll buy you that gum! You sure didn't need to do that! You have the best weekend!"

On the ferry we were surrounded by people much younger, much more tanned, much more carefree than we, but no one else had Avery, and no one else was going to stay with Alyssa, so too bad for them! No sunblock, of course, which turned out to be the watchword of the day and John and I emerged that evening quite hot-faced. Avery, for some reason, is never sunburned. Ever. Everyone, including the Mad Dog Leila, met us at the ferry, and we schlepped our scant belongings home, remembering the small, dear, grassy sidewalks, no cars! Bicycles everywhere, ridden by the most eclectic group of people you can imagine: fake William F. Buckley, Jrs., fake Henry Louise Gates, Jrs., real hippies, gay couples of both sexes walking every sort of dog under the sun, children running each other off the path, old people carrying small string bags of provisions from the market. To their house, white walls, windows everywhere, easy furniture, an open kitchen, and a Jacuzzi!

I had brought macaroni and cheese and sausages for lunch, so we immediately tucked in. Annabelle, Avery's friend since they were 2 1/2, seemed momentarily shy with us, but I soon realized it was the very same brand of teenage (almost) reserve and wait-and-see that Avery and her London friends show. They share a quiet enjoyment in each other's company, a relationship they both describe as "sort of cousins." Cousins in the non-volitional mode of friendship: their mothers are best friends/would-be sisters, so they are cousins! Plus, happily, they genuinely like each other, in the random, general way people do when thrown together for fun, twice a year. Gone is the Elliot version of friendship, which with John manifests itself in being upside down most of the time, alternately cracking up and threatening to cry! We all remembered the duel of all duels, which involved Elliot being wrapped by John in duct tape and... ended in the t-shirt Elliot was wearing having to be CUT OFF with scissors. Mental note: never duct tape a child, even dressed.

We trooped down to the beach and installed ourselves with every convenience: all the beach chairs Steve had valiantly carried against the massive winds ("no umbrellas TODAY!" Elliot announced with little-boy relish at crazy weather), shovels to dig with, Leila and her leash, snacks and water and towels. John immediately disregarded the notices against swimming and took both girls with him. I panicked and wet-blanketed until finally John said definitively, "Don't be a killjoy," which put the fear of God in me: I never want to be a killjoy! So I went swimming too. The intensely salty water, putting what you get in an oyster shell to shame! The sheer fear of being overwhelmed by a wave, remembering to duck if you just wanted to wait it our rather than RIDE it out! The floating, magical feeling of buoyancy and wildness. I take so few risks in my life these days that the feeling I might be swept away in clear view of my husband and child was quite exhilarating!

A long walk the length of the beach, watching a kiteglider perform amazing feats. So I decided to perform my own amazing feats, joining the girls in cartwheels. I should have stopped there, but no, Annabelle and Avery, with vestigial memories of their childhood with me in the park in New York, chanted, "Front walkover, front walkover!" Well, the first one landed me on my bum, the second one scarcely better and the third: injured some useful tendon in the bottom of my foot! Limping still, how embarrassing.

We all took turns in the addictive outdoor shower! The next feature of Red Gate Farm, John promises. Where to put it, next summer? There is something about showering under the real live sky that is quite poetic and wonderful, rising far above mere shampoo and conditioner. Gorgeous. Then to town, Alyssa, John and me on foot, the girls and Elliot taking an independent route on their bikes. "I'm not sure I remember how to do this!" Avery quavered, wavering slightly on her borrowed bike. "Sure you can," John said nonchalantly, "it's like... riding a bike."

Slight delay (in which I had them all kidnapped, Alyssa saying briskly to me, "There are no kidnappers on Fire Island,") during which it transpired Elliot had fallen off his bike. Annabelle came running up to us, panting out the story. "He fell in front of the market, and a nice lady came out and asked if she could help, and we introduced ourselves, and she asked Avery if she was staying here, and Avery said no, just a night before she went back to London, and then the lady said, 'Is your mother Kristen? Tell her I said hi, from the PS 234 Book Fair.'"

Doesn't that take the cake? Of course she is an old friend who worked with me on the Book Fair and then took over the chairship when we moved. Just proves my long-held belief in not misbehaving because if you do, the lady at the market giving a band-aid to your friend's son will see you doing it. Or close enough.

Crisis averted, we cruised the town of Seaview, buying plenty of candy, scoping out all the sweatshirts we'd buy if needed another sweatshirt even SLIGHTLY more than we need a hole in the head. Gazing at all the bars, the "LIVE MUSIC TO-NITE" signs, the testosterone-poisoned young men and smoking young ladies, tossing their hair... "Did you ever have a bar summer?" I asked Alyssa, and we realized that we as adults missed that particular joy, having been mated up with our to-be husbands very, very young. And never looked back. Well, almost never.

Home in a leisurely fashion, trying to read the clouds as they scudded over the dunes, the town, the ocean. Would it rain? Would Hurricane Bill show his face? The girls jumped into the hot tub, albeit only warm, and Elliot raced around with the hose, threatening them. The dog barked wildly, we poured cocktails and ate my new favorite treat, Haddon House Tomolives, although where I'll ever find them again, I don't know: they're pickled tiny tomatoes! We feasted on barbecued salami, cut in nice thick slices, hot and spicy, and then chicken and flank steak fajitas with grilled peppers and onions: HEAVEN! A brief attempt to eat outside, and then when we realized our children were donning sweaters in the blazing heat to avoid the mosquitoes! we moved inside.

The culinary revelation of the weekend?

Alyssa's Parmesan Corn
(2 ears per person, this recipe serves 4 easily)


8 ears sweetcorn, broken in half
1/2 cup parmesan, grated
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
pinch sea salt

Drop the corn in boiling water and cook for 4 minutes, then drain and toss with the cheese, butter and salt. Perfection, gluttony and indulgence.

*********************

What does it take to be a truly talented hostess? I can describe Alyssa. She makes it seem as if her greatest joy would be something she could do for you, and it would be effortless. Towels, food, cold drinks, books you didn't even know you wanted to read, all appear in your hands, while she dispenses her typical New Yorker wisdom on all current events, food fads, upcoming weather, finding time to tell you what already knew: namely how remarkable, nay UNIQUE your child is, outstripping even her wildest expectations as to how remarkable your child would turn out. When she went off to the market on an emergency bike ride for a tomato, she called to Avery, "Want to come?" and my heart simply melted with joy at hearing their non-stop chatter as they rode away. Not everyone can treat a child with such unselfconscious warmth. It's all done with complete relaxation and love and ease. A true talent. It's why I love her.

We stayed up to look at pictures of mutual friends grown far too tall, on Alyssa's computer, the girls and Elliot crowing in disbelief. "THAT'S DUNCAN??" They all tucked into Alyssa's peanut butter brownies and ice cream and I acknowledged how sunburned I had got, and John succumbed to sleep. Would you believe that our stay put Alyssa on the couch for the night and she didn't MIND? That's friendship. The girls shared a room, cozy like old-days sleepovers. To think that when she was three years old, Avery was happily spending half her weekend nights in Annabelle's bedroom, while Annabelle was just as comfortable in Avery's house. Just dear, dear memories.

In the morning, I was the last up but Annabelle, and John reported his early-morning hanging-out with Alyssa. Luckily I am a very secure person or else I'd be massively jealous at his paeans of praise... but come to think of it, it's only a matter of who praises her the most, him or me! How lovely to be with her. Out to the beach which we could in fact HEAR far before we could SEE it. The waves much, much higher than Friday, prohibitively so in fact, I cannot imagine swimming. But I got some wonderful sandy photographs, although my memory of this particularly glamorous shot of Avery is a bit spoiled by her telling me now, "I was starting to feel odd then..." The storm was coming in from the west, oddly, since we were expecting the hurricane from the East.

A real New York bagel brunch complete with smoked salmon, scallion cream cheese, tomatoes, red onions, a melon, you name it. Cucumber vinegar salad, all the New York favorites. Then the haul back to the ferry... and reluctant goodbyes all around. Elliot bravely said goodbye to all his family and prepared to board the ferry with us: caught just in time! How I hate the watchword of this and all summers: "Goodbye!" I wondered idly what it would be like to have a life where everyone I loved was in one place, where no one ever moved away, where I never in fact moved away... how impossible it is to imagine, when so much of our emotional energy is spent greeting, appreciating, saying goodbye, reacclimating, adjusting, anticipating. I bet if I didn't do all that, I could really accomplish something. But it's my life.

To Bay Shore and the Italian Pork Store! I'm not kidding, it's Frank and Maria's pride and joy, and I acquired the most lovely pork ribs and pork mince there, in advance of our dinner with Jill and Joel (more goodbyes). If you're in Bay Shore, go there. Mostly, it's the name that made me happy. Tell it like it is!

Home in a torrential rainstorm, via the magical Throg's Neck Bridge with its far-away views of our much-missed Manhattan, with Avery dozing uncomfortably most of the way, a slight fever making her miserable. We were SO happy to pull up in the driveway at Red Gate Farm, and... get ready for the next dinner crowd! But that's another story. Thank you, Alyssa and family, for a sublime, unforgettable 24 hours. We'll miss you, as always.

20 August, 2009

a brush with the fuzz












Well, it's a first in my experience of our little uneventful Connecticut road (dirt in most places, the way we like it, to keep traffic down). I was out washing the car, something I have a strange love for, a throwback to fun with my dad, no doubt, when Avery decided it was time to go across the road to feed Anne and David's cats, her welcome job when they are away for a few days. As I was scrubbing away the filth of not only an entire summer but an entire winter AND spring in the barn under countless birds' nests, across the road she came again, saying, "They appear to have an alarm and I'm not sure what to do with it." John jumped down from the terrace and said he'd run across to help her. It was but the work of a moment for him to reappear, asking me, "Do you have Anne's number in the city? I've set off the alarm..."

Minutes later, after leaving a message for Anne who unaccountably was away from her phone in the way people you hope to find often are, the fuzz arrived. Yes, two of how many can Southbury possibly have? appeared in our road, passing up both houses at first as a result of their happy lack of acquaintance with us. I paused with a cold soapy car mitt in hand, with the certain knowledge that they would turn around and be back with us in however long it takes to shake a cat's tail. Sure enough, back they came, into Anne's driveway, and up sauntered John, friendly smile in place, with Avery lagging behind, noticeably less comfortable with the authorities as befits a near-teenager.

"All I had to do was show my driver's license and prove that we live across the road, and explain about feeding the kitties..." John said, with the same glee he used to show when he got out of a speeding ticket by having a small girl in a fancy riding costume in the back seat. "But officer, we're on our way to a horse show and we're late..."

More excitement than we're used to, although, sadly, the Officers of the Law eschewed their sirens and lights, darn it. We spent the rest of the day doing boring things like continuing to wash and vacuum the car (finding such treasures as the lost Pool Pass, although since we're there every day, the lifeguards don't even care anymore), the sunscreen that I've neglected all summer, arguing to myself that if we're out only an hour it's OK, if we're out past 4 o'clock it's OK, you name it, I've got an excuse for failing to apply sunscreen. I also found any number of American coins that had Avery found them sooner would have funded an endless number of pool treats. A dreadfully sweaty day to accomplish this task, but it was worth it to have a gorgeously clean car. Off to tennis, where we were flanked on the adjoining court by a hideously young and fit pair of high school boys, making us all the more aware of our middle-aged efforts! The worst? Once their game broke up, one of the boys STAYED and watched us! Probably he took pictures with his phone and entered us into some old people's tennis tournament and we'll get a notice in the mail. Never mind, our hearts will thank us.

A quick dip in the pool, and home for lunch. My new favorite thing? An inspiration from my inspiring husband, who looking at a bag of Fritos that we longed to dip in luxurious sour cream, said, "What would happen if you whizzed up your bean salad in the Cuisinart and made bean dip of it? Couldn't we dip Fritos in that?" And there you have it. The best bean salad, when you get tired of it, becomes quite the best reason for you to excuse buying that bag of chips. And a huge amount of your daily suggested veg, as well.

The Best Bean Salad
(serves? at least four for lunch and then dip)


1 soup-size can each black beans and haricots (small white beans), rinsed and drained
2 ears raw corn, kernels cut off (cut them into the salad bowl so they don't fly away)
handful sugar snap peas, sliced into quarters
1 red, orange or yellow pepper, diced
1 bunch scallions, sliced white and green parts
handful chives, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced WITH juice of 1 lemon and 1 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon
fresh black pepper to taste
sprinkle crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup olive oil

Simply mix everything. The reason I advise you to mince your garlic WITH the lemon juice and salt is that the process pulverizes the garlic to a mush, which is much nicer than a mince. Trust me. Mix WELL.

Now, when you have had your salad for lunch, put the rest in your Cuisinart and add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, then pulse until pureed. Add as much olive oil as you need to get the texture you like. DIVINE. Serve with raw carrot and celery sticks, wedges of red cabbage, sticks of jicama, kohlrabi and turnip. PERFECT!

******************

As you can see here, anyway, I wanted you to enjoy the last view of Red Gate Farm at Sunday's party for my mother, now safely (I hope!) back in Indiana. My parents stopped kindly in our little town on their way home yesterday to see Avery on Red Baron, jumping those high jumps, then they headed home. What a glorious visit we all had, and we tried hard to cram in enough memories to last six months, till we get together again, we hope, at Christmastime.

Avery and I spent this hot, humid afternoon slaving over a hot stove making, I'm not kidding, desserts! Avery has become deservedly famous for her blueberry tart, recipe on her blog, and so this afternoon in advance of our dinner at our farmer friends Rollie and Judy's house, she made another. And I made another batch of lemon bars to take to Fire Island tomorrow to visit my adored friend Alyssa and her family, including Annabelle, Avery's friend since age about 2 1/2, home now from her long sojourn at summer camp! No sooner had we finished our spa-like exercise in humidity and sweating that is baking on the hottest day of the year than the next adventure arrived: giving the foster kitties to their prospective new family!

Yes, Avery succeeded in finding a potential new home for the babies. She asked at the stable when she was riding yesterday, and sure enough, the darling girl who helps her bathe the Red Baron was interested! "Just let me call my mom, who says she thinks she's allergic, but she's a total softy; she let us bring a dog home for about a day once, and seven years later he's still with us!" Sure enough, the long-suffering mother agreed to babysit the little kitties for us while we're in Fire Island, and who knows after that what might happen: if they fall in love, we've found homes for them. So they arrived in the sweltering early evening, came into the house and the room we'd set aside for their belongings (which I'd cleverly vacuumed and scrubbed so they wouldn't immediately see the messy evidence of the kids' presence), and happily took away the litter box, litter, food and the kitties themselves. Avery and I had each spent a loving half hour or so right before the handover, cuddling and encouraging them to be lovable, calm and adoptable.

"Let's call it babysitting for right now," said Karen, the mother, while Katie the barn girl and her brother Andrew quietly fell in love. "And we'll take it from there." Fingers massively crossed that, as much as we love them, we don't get them back.

Off in an instant after that (well, five minutes spent in front of a fan, changing clothes and reapplying antiperspirant, plus making cheese sauce for macaroni to take to Alyssa's family) to Rollie and Judy's for dinner. We rose above the heat to sit outside in the evening air, feeling the temperature drop as we enjoyed crudites and dip, watching trucks come in and out of the driveway containing their three stalwart boys and friends, listening to the new milking cows mooing in the distance, Max the lab and Mr. B the enormous vanilla-colored tomcat weaving in and out of our legs. I always love the atmosphere at Rollie and Judy's: crazy activity, sun-browned boys (now men, really) rushing in controlled chaos from job to job on the farm, Rollie enlisting John's help as traffic cop as a new trailer gets delivered to Young Rollie's farm down the road.

And Judy presides over all with calm, joyous appreciation of all her boys and her visitors. Calm is the word! With three boys who appeared in fewer than five years, she'd have to be. And she fed us, oh how she fed us. Glorious barbecued shredded (sliced? some of each) beef, tender in an incredibly rich sauce that I will try to glean from Judy. Perfectly crisp corn on the cob, potato salad. Avery's blueberry tart for dessert, applause all around. I must say, I'm so pleased at how she rises to being the only child, with so many adults. To questions about her school, her friends, riding, she answers graciously with funny stories and just the right amount of detail. A most satisfactory girl. And she can BAKE.

We staggered home after such sumptuous food and packed up for our adventure tomorrow. It's been YEARS since we made it to Alyssa's on Fire Island. Two years ago we were stopped by a hurricane! And last year I simply cannot remember what kept us away. But it's against my religion to let more than six months go by without Avery and Annabelle seeing each other, and it's too long this year. We'll report. If we're not in the slammer by then, I mean.

17 August, 2009

birthday delights



















































My word, as my Kentucky Aunt Mary Wayne would say, my word! It was 91 degrees in the shade for my mother's birthday party yesterday. Lord have mercy, she would also say, we were warm. John, slaving over the grill, I slaving over the oven, felt it the worst, I fear, but in any case no amount of sweat and red faces could spoil our fun. It was a wonderful, heart-warming day.

No time for tennis, from the word go, all day, every moment was accounted for in one delight or another. My mother and I fall into a pattern whereby she sits in as much comfort as she can, cruelly plagued by arthritis as she is, in the kitchen rocking chair and entertains me with stories of family and friends. I chop, boil, mix, sort, count napkins, and she reads aloud from "Soap Opera Digest," whereupon we ask each other, "Now surely Bo and Hope cannot have one more child killed. She'll just be kidnapped, do you think?" and my long-suffering husband calls over, "I hope you're not talking about real people that I'm supposed to care about." My father ambles through the kitchen, listening with one ear while also sampling the potato salad, the slaw, the coffee cake. They both watch while I turn a pile of scallops into gorgeous little parcels wrapped each in two basil leaves, then wrapped in a piece of bacon, then slid onto a skewer. Three per skewer, a good serving size (don't tell that to Joel, who was convinced they would be very BAD leftovers and so kindly ate two skewers-ful).

Dad went cheerfully with me and John to buy ice, and to fill the car with yellow balloons, a certain number of which burst in the heat of the day, and then we all, Avery included, strolled around Red Gate Farm tying them to the fence, to the azalea bush, to the rusty but sweet wrought-iron bench that sits demurely in front of the house, to the bench under the hydrangea tree which obligingly bloomed its greeny-white blossoms just in time for the party. The farm glowed with yellow ribbons.

And for those not wanting to eat scallops, I prepared a plate of bison burgers, of all things! My mother in law arrived for her visit last month filled with stories of the bison she had eaten on a holiday in Montana, and I thought, "Lead me to it!" Sadly I did not sample the burgers myself, but Avery and my sister and father raved about them. Avery claims there is a beefy flavor, but underneath that is another, deeper flavor that is truly delightful. It's worth a try. Perhaps later this week I can try them myself. With a piquant Provolone from the deli, red onion slices and a mixture of mayo, mustard and black pepper, they looked divine and smelled better.

The sun shone. Avery and Jane set up their course of jumps, and trampolined. The boys drank beer as John grilled, my sister fed the baby, Anne came briefly with an enormous jug, as you see, of flowers for my mother! "Somebody told me you liked yellow... and Kate is refusing to nap, so we'll be by when we can!" Poor Kate is cutting molars, and Avery described her experiences of twelve-year molars last year which even then were uncomfortable, so the poor baby experience can only be guessed at.

We ate, my goodness, how we ate. Quite the perfect slaw, I think, of Savoy and red cabbages, jicama and julienned carrots with a dressing full of mustard and poppy seeds, kindly brought to me by Joel, from the stash I brought to him! And why should potato salad be so heavy and mayonnaisey? It doesn't have to be. Here's mine.

Light Potato Salad
(serves 10)


5 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, steamed till tender, cut in bite-size cubes
4 stalks celery, minced
2 bunches scallions (spring onions), minced white AND green parts

dressing:
1/3 cup olive oil
juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsps maple vinegar
1 tsp celery salt
1 tbsp mayonnaise
3 tbsps Dijon mustard
loads of fresh-ground black pepper
sea salt

Shake up all dressing ingredients except black pepper and toss with potatoes, celery and scallions. Grind the pepper over the salad and salt to taste.

***************

This salad is light, tasty, summery, and perfect with burgers, ribs, chicken wings, you name it. And you can enjoy it without struggling through that gloppy, over-dressed fatigue that accompanies so many potato salads from delis. And no guilt.

Once we got to the cake, with its now-traditional legend "Happy Birthday, Mona," the girls gathered around their grandmother for a photo op, and it was like paparazzi, the parents with cameras! My mother, who has the most beautiful skin on the planet, simply glowed with the undeniable warmth, and also another warmth generated by being surrounded by beautiful girls, the next generation, smiling their love for her. Just a gorgeous day.

A quick cleanup, Molly down for her nap, my mother happily watching a Nascar race, John doing some complicated financial things, and the rest of us headed off to the swimming pool for a cool-down. That pool makes me laugh: it's so shabby, so old-fashioned, ringing with "Marco... Polo..." and an endless parade of unoccupied, gorgeous, washboard-stomach lifeguards of both sexes... we swam, Jane jumped off the side with her newly-acquired skills while her parents cheered, Avery dived, also a new skill this summer. Idyllic.

Back home, my sister and her family packed up to make for home and establish some sense of a much-needed routine evening! Enough party for a four-and-a-half year old with energy to spare... and we, we settled in for a nice cocktail hour on the terrace, warm and humid to be sure, but irresistible in the early-evening beauty. Then pierrade for us all, a protein injection in case we needed it. I think my dad was very skeptical about the whole process of grilling his own little bites of sirloin and duck, but he quickly was convinced by the sheer deliciousness of it, and my mother's requested sauteed mixed peppers were the perfect combination.

And for dessert? I've been trying to find an old recipe that my mother and I used to make for her ladies-who-study afternoon meetings, and for old Mother's Days gone by, lemon bars. What I ended up making was not the same at all, but it was nice. Still, we'd like to resurrect the old version which had as its filling, we recall, a mixture of lemon frosting mix and cream cheese. The version I made for the party evening came from mixing up several recipes that all sounded temptingly familiar, and yielded a much less rich thing than what we remember, but still provides a chewy, buttery crust that somehow merges with its lemony flavoring. Give it a try. I think Avery will blog it too.

Lemon Bars
(makes 24 bars)


1 box lemon cake mix
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, melted
1 cup unrefined sugar
zest and juice of 2 lemons
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs

Mix lemon cake mix and melted butter and press into a 9-inch square pan that you've sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 20 minutes at 350F.

With an electric mixer or (as I had to) just whipping really hard with a whisk, mix all remaining ingredients. When the crust comes out of the oven, when it's still hot, pour this mixture over the crust and then bake again for 25 minutes. Chewy, tart, buttery delight. Even I liked it.

*****************

John valiantly made it awake until 10 or so that night, and then retreated to bed. Anne had said earlier in the day, "It's always so cozy to look across the road at 5 in the morning, see a light on, and think, 'John's up!'" His early night left my parents and Avery and me to play Aggravation, and then Avery said, "I wonder what's in those old suitcases," pointing to a stack of antique leather suitcases that serves as a little decoration in the parlor, although we've been known to travel with them, in our old London days when we were young enough to care if we travelled stylishly. "Well, I can tell you that the bottom two are empty, but the top one is full of old photographs," I said, so we opened it up. The glamor! The style! Young, skinny, self-indulgent John and me from 20 years ago, in Moscow giving chewing gum to little Russian children, me in doctoral robes getting my PhD, gazed over by my beloved tutor and advisor, on whom I had a completely uncontrollable crush (fuelled by the fact that he had married no fewer than FOUR of his graduate students!), on happy walks in the Cotswolds with John's parents, in the streets of New York waiting to see Ralph Fiennes in "Hamlet"... with my parents at Buckland Manor in Oxfordshire, all of us so young.

Avery loved it! It's so funny, and sad in a way, although I just should be happy that we've had such a happy past. But how quickly it all went by. Such a short time to be glamorous and young, and I must say this summer, I can feel the torch passing to Avery's generation. She's about to be the one with exciting new opportunities, meeting the people who will be her adult world, traveling, taking risks. John and I amuse ourselves at our tennis games by asking, "What would you be willing to have Avery do when she's 16? Can she bring her boyfriend to Red Gate Farm for the summer? Can she travel with him to Europe? Can she go with a group that's chaperoned but not to study, just to travel?" I find myself MUCH more liberal about her plans than I would have expected, and John not so much! The protective father comes out in high relief. It is good to have a past to look back on without much to regret, no adventures that turned sour, no relationships that ended in tears, really. I know we can't expect to have the easy ride as parents that our parents did! We were so tame. And yet... we had fun.

So Happy Birthday, Mona, for another year. How lucky we feel to have had the day in the sunshine, to be together and play, and appreciate each other.

16 August, 2009

heaven with family

































As my dad said this evening, watching the girls playing together, the dads building a course of horsey jumps with Avery's beloved set of jumps, my mother and I sitting with my sister as she fed the baby, "Too bad you don't live just a half a mile away." Truer words were never spoken, a truth I try very hard not to think about 11 months of the year. Life is so absorbing as it is, in London, that it isn't too difficult to feel that it's all just fine, working splendidly thank you. Until our family is all together (minus my brother who stayed home to mind the house and cats), I don't think too much about What Might Have Been, what life might be like if we all lived within shouting distance of each other and had the time to spend weekends together, do home repair projects together, to have our parents mind our child, to have the luxury of getting sick of each other, annoyed by each other. As it is, we just hold it close these few weeks (just days with my mother and father), and enjoy.

Today was such fun! All three of us cleaned house with a vengeance, eradicating spiders in their webs (they proliferate unbelievably in the summer months!), dust bunnies under beds, I washed kitchen rugs AND the floor, we made the guest room bed, grocery shopped till we dropped for the day today and the big birthday party tomorrow. Finally the house was completely presentable, one more load of laundry in the machine.

John and I suffered, there's no other word for it, through a sweltering, stinking game of tennis mid-morning, while Avery swam. I do not do well HOT. I kept straining to hear the sounds of children jumping into clear, cold water, and felt all the hotter and more martyred to the game. But we persevered in the humidity and got in about 40 minutes before I finally said UNCLE and drank my last enormous gulp of icy water, and we headed to the pool. Glorious, face-cooling laps, refreshing beyond belief to drift through the water, listening to children's shouts, lifeguard's occasional lackadaisical whistles and all-too-repetitive "Don't run!", the Top 40 Claptrap radio blaring its wares over the still summer air. We roused ourselves to shower, go home and get dressed for the arrival of my parents. I listened to one of my favorite summer books on tape, "Missing Susan," about a mystery tour of England with one of the tourists an intended murder victim, snorting with laughter as I fed Avery some leftover pasta with a truly stupendous tomatoey vodka sauce and started on devilled eggs for my mother, who would kill for them. And then there they were!

"What on earth are you doing coming in the front door?" I asked in bewilderment, since nobody but Terminix ever enters the house in that fashion. "Your mother wanted to enter the house," my father began, and my mother finished, "Through the proper entrance, and to see how you've changed these rooms!"

The changed music room and dining room found favor, as did the resurrected bookshelves, special ornaments, all the old objects finding new life. I always simply bow to the fact that my mother is a supremely gifted interior designer and I myself, as I confessed to her, just put things where they go and generally never think about them again. It's funny: her gifts in home decor found no purchase with me, where she cannot be bothered to think a thing about what to eat. But I greatly enjoyed growing up in a beautiful home and she loves to eat my food, so somehow we both fell into appreciating each other's talents without having the slightest inclination to pick up the other's interests. It's a rare mother, I think, who can see her child growing up without sharing her own passions, developing her own, and go on to love visiting that child in her design-challenged home and love being fed by her. We really enjoy each other, that's the simple truth.

My father came armed with solid-gold tomatoes from his own garden, which my sister and I are meant to share. Exactly how will that work, I wonder? We all gazed upon them today and I promptly made my tomato-mozzarella salad out of dull tomatoes from the supermarket, postponing the inevitable squabble. My mother brought me a watercolor of my childhood home, where they still live! And an old shadow-box made of a printer's tray that I, in high school, had filled with trinkets and mementoes from that senior year: so many things I had forgotten about completely! My city champion diving medal! And medals from singing competitions, and essay contests, a key to the city from the mayor of my hometown... And a piece of driftwood from Omaha Beach, amazingly, with the flag of Normandy behind it, and my boarding pass to France when I was 17.

Avery was enthralled with this hitherto undreamed-of evidence of my adolescence, and I was visited with a beloved memory from my childhood, sitting on my bedroom rug with MY mother, looking at her high-school diary, hearing stories of her boyfriends, her quarrels with my grandmother who always seemed far too serene to go in for such scenes. When I looked at Avery, in all her teenage grace, tucking her hair behind her ear, exclaiming with disbelief and admiration at the tokens of my childhood achievements, I felt a complete surreal dislocation of roles, and times. How we replace our mothers! How lucky we are to have daughters to sit down with and look at all this tiresome and yet beloved memorabilia! How on earth did we produce these wonderful girls, Avery this summer seeming suddenly to be such a companion and friend.

John retreated upstairs to take a nap in the humid summer air, even with AC. I taught my mother a skill she never in her LIFE will use: how to remove the backbone from an enormous American chicken, and smothered it in barbecue sauce. Two of them, in fact, and she was completely grossed out, further reinforcing her view that food should come in a form not recognizable as an animal, I'm afraid. I made a sugar-cream pie ("Chess Pie," I think, to my dear Southern friend Becky), and you can, too.

Sugar-Cream Pie
(serves 8, or my mother when she's in the mood)


1 store-bought pie crust, or you can make your own
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup unrefined sugar
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
whole nutmeg

Sprinkle flour and sugar into the unbaked pastry crust, then add cream and mix WITH YOUR FINGERS. I know this sounds disgusting and it is. A bit. But every recipe I read included this arcane instruction to mix with fingers, so I did. Just keep stirring gently, picking up the sugar from the bottom, squishing the flour bits into the cream, until it's all mixed. Then gently add vanilla and grate nutmeg, just a sprinkling, over the top.

Bake at 450F for 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 and bake for another hour. Take the precaution of lining the oven floor with foil, because I didn't and the repulsive job of cleaning my oven which I'd done the DAY BEFORE will now have to be redone, because sugary cream leaked over the edge of the pie. Drat.

Cool completely before serving.

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This pie was received with the enthusiastic accolades of John and my mother, the reserved "it's nice" of other people, and I myself decided, with Abraham Lincoln, that "it's the sort of thing you'll like, if you like that sort of thing." Very sweet and creamy, simple and old-fashioned. Avery can decide whether or not she wants to blog it herself, after we make the two further desserts for tomorrow's birthday party.

My sister and her family arrived, in the warm August afternoon, to Jane's scream, "Nonna!" and my father's amused scrutiny of Molly, who can match him gaze for gaze. The girls retrieved Avery's horsey jumps from the barn, I concocted a salad of spinach and arugula with steamed potatoes and red onions and a mustardy vinaigrette, and then Joel walked out of the kitchen saying calmly, "There's smoke in there, a LOT of smoke," and sure enough, my oven was emitting angry relentless waves of smoke from the sugar on its floor, utterly forgetting that its current job was to cook the barbecued spatchcocked chicken. Ah well, John leapt to the rescue with the grill, and the chicken was gorgeous in the end, half-baked, half-grilled. Be spontaneous, I always say.

We ate, the girls horsey-jumped, my mother gave them adorable gifts in the form of a stuffed alpaca owl for Molly, a stuffed deer baby for Jane, and silver horse charms and a charm necklace for Avery!

Tomorrow will bring Anne, David and Kate from across the road, and all the family again for the annual birthday party. I can't wait. But I'll leave you with one question: why is my blog so easy to write and my cookbook/memoir so impossible? What on EARTH am I missing that I can't seem to bridge this unbridgable gap? How can I solve this conundrum? Answer me that and I'll cater your daughter's wedding. Or whatever. It's killing me.

14 August, 2009

one down, two to go



































It's true: one of our foster kittens has been adopted. The shelter in Danbury called us up and said they had potential clients for "two black kittens," so we packed up all three (several sweaty forays under beds, backs of hands scratched) in the carrier and headed off. I found it quite stressful, trying to sell kittens! Avery was a total star, enumerating their good qualities, trying to pretend they weren't hiding under cages and sofas, calming each one down so they could be held by the would-be new families. An hour later, Amelia had been chosen by a lovely couple who in a slightly Too Much Information moment confided their infertility problems and every other intimate detail of their lives. "My first wife left me," the fellow confided, rocking on his heels, "and she said we'd have to split up the cats, she'd take one, I'd keep one. Oh, NO, I said, you want to leave, you leave. But the cats stay. Then they died. So now my new wife [head gesture to very demure lady standing next to him, hands folded] is having female problems, and I said, with everything that's going on with maybe a baby, it's no time for a kitten. But then the baby didn't work out. So I said, OK, let's get a kitten. And now he's driving us crazy, just as we get home from work all tired out, he's ready to play. ALL NIGHT. So he needs a friend." Oh, sad. But sweet. So away went Amelia in their very posh carrier. And Dorrit and Nemo came back home with us. We can only hope we'll find homes for them before we have to head back to London.

We're in desperate denial that our time here is dwindling. Avery's reading straight through the Southbury library, I'm reading through my shelves here, and let me just share with you what's got John's literary hearbeat pounding: "Derivatives and Equity Portfolio Management." I swear I am not making that up. And you know the best part? He says it's a SEQUEL to a book he read in London. A SEQUEL.

Avery has made the most amazing discovery: Willow Creek Farms, a nearby equestrian concern with quite a magical horse and trainer in The Red Baron, and Amie. It's the familiar stable world filled with shy girls leading ponies, forking hay, setting up jumps. The Red Baron is enormous! The jumps even more so! I try to be calm as she races around the stable in a complicated series of overcoming obstacles. She will not get hurt! I'm sure of it. And Amie seems to love her, which is mutual, so everyone's happy. The setting is idyllic: typical rolling Connecticut hills, blue blue skies, all harmony and peace.

I have a philosophical question for you: do you ever successfully really enjoy things, or do you just do them frantically to save them to enjoy later when life calms down? Like the philosopher (I forget who) who says that happiness isn't something we experience, it's something we remember. I do feel I spend each summer packing the hours full of people and things and food and events that serve more than anything else as memories, not the actual experience. Maybe it's inevitable, when we are here for such a short time.

Even more significant than these musings is the following: I admit it: I really miss English sausage. There. I've said it.

So the days are winding themselves down, kittens find a place to sleep in the least comfortable spot in the entire house: on a windowsill perched above my staircase. Both kittens sleep there now at night, since Avery has reluctantly closed her door to them, finding it impossible to sleep with them biting her nose, burying their faces in her ears, tucking themselves under the covers to find her alpaca teddy bear to snuggle with. For some reason they don't try it on with John and me. Nemo made an appearance this afternoon to sit on the trampoline while Kate bounced and tried on my shoes (I am not exaggerating, she is simply obsessed with shoes), and he was completely adorable, limp and sweaty in the late afternoon sun, folding his paws, showing off the white chin that's so symmetrically and perfectly placed under his mouth!

I look around my house and see burned-out lightbulbs that I can't reach, spider webs ditto, a place in the shower that should be bleached, dried out and caulked, and I think: next summer? I'd rather relax and gaze at the pink and green rose-patterned vintage lampshade on my bedside table (a rickety affair of four chipped legs with a vanilla-colored painted top), looking across the room at the brass-handled four-drawer wooden affair with scattered faded flowers painted across it, and the three-drawer Indiana piece from my graduate student shopping trip in Vincennes, Indiana... if I squint generously all I see are the memories these objects evoke, and not the dust bunnies that blow forth when a kitten crawls under them and disturbs the years of fluff.

Excitement is building for my mother's birthday party on Sunday: odd packages are being wrapped, and for obvious reasons I cannot tell you what is in them, but the funny assortment of things represent who she is! I cannot wait to see them tomorrow when they arrive sometime in the mid afternoon. Avery and I will spend the day baking desserts for her party, and my dad will pull up in the driveway with a car filled with his precious tomatoes for Jill (perhaps she'll share), with stories of their two-day cross-country journey. Jill and her family will arrive for dinner, with Jane no doubt bouncing off the walls with excitement, Molly gazing at all the hilarity with her usual brow-furrowed concentration.

I'll leave you with a spectacular and spectacularly simple lobster recipe. You can afford it this summer, with lobster prices the lowest in more than 20 years (but spare a thought for the poor lobstermen). It's summer on a plate.

Grilled Lobster with Pesto Butter
(serves 4, one lobster per person)


4 lobsters, 1 1/2 pounds each
1/2 cup pesto
1/2 cup butter, melted

Drop lobsters headfirst into a pot with 2 inches of boiling water. Clap lid on pot and steam the lobsters for 12 minutes. Cool lobsters until they can be handled, then cut them in half lengthwise and remove claws. Liberate meat from claws and set aside.

Mix the pesto and melted butter. Brush each lobster half, flesh side, with the pesto mixture and grill over a high heat for 4 minutes. Serve with fresh pesto mixture brushed on, and with claw meat on the side.

***************

This dish is rich, buttery, massively flavorful and redolent of August. You'll love it. And if you come for dinner, I'll throw in a kitten. Or two.