17 January, 2010

how long is a week?

Here's where I'm just not a very modern person, at heart. Because it doesn't make the slightest sense in the world to me that a week ago tonight I was in Orange, New Jersey with my most extravagant hostessly friends, drinking Scotch and watching them prepare pot roast, noodles and summer-grown lima beans in butter sauce.

But I was.

I was fed magnificently, tucked into a bed of white flannel sheets, kissed goodnight, and then minutes later the alarm went off at 5 a.m. for us to get to Newark. Nightmare.

Twelve hours later, we arrived to four cats simply starved for affection, mountains of mail including beloved Christmas cards from farflung friends, a COMPLETELY empty refrigerator. I mean, two onions and some condiments. That was ALL. And a host of emails reminding me that I was in charge of Avery's class ice skating trip to Somerset House the NEXT DAY. And two mothers begging, "Can you take Little So-and-So because it turns out I can't make it?" And of course I could. Maybe responsibility for three teenagers with skate blades in the Tube would keep me awake.

And so the week went. I skated, I chaperoned the children in the chill, gray City world. Feeling we might be nearly lost on the way, the children and I stopped a likely-looking City Chap and asked, "Where is Somerset House?" To our total delight, he pointed us in the right direction and then said, and I am not making this up, "Toodle-loo!" The girls all collapsed in laughter. Several of them came home with us for movies on the sofa, popcorn, trying on makeup, and finally baked chicken and paprika potatoes. We were officially HOME.

Wednesday I took charge of a friend's daughter while my friend was, sadly, consoling her sister on the death of her child. THAT situation puts life right in perspective. "Could you have my daughter for the day?" Could I? I'd keep her for life if I could have stopped that situation from happening. There can be no whinging of jet lag in a world where children simply cease to exist from one moment to the next. I was THRILLED to have a household full of girls, dropping in to say hello, bringing "We missed you" brownies, mothers stopping for a cup of tea and to catch up.

And Thursday Avery went back to school, and I went for a sushi lunch with my friend from California, Janet, who had the temerity to live next door to me for two years and we were nothing but "hi, how are you" friends, but up she moves to Los Angeles, and now we can't get enough of each other! So whenever she comes to town, we're off on a foodie adventure and to chat, chat, chat.

Here's an intriguing question. Janet's been spending some time in a nursing home with an aging relative, asking that elderly lady and all her friends, who are also 90-year-old ladies, what age they would go back to if they could. And do you know what these ladies answer? Their mid-80s. Why do I find that so surprising? Perhaps because I waste a fair amount of time wishing I had my 30-year-old figure back, or my 2-year-old child back, or I'm nostalgic for my gallery six years ago. So I suppose I imagine I would return to my 30s.

But apparently my friend Janet's anecdotal evidence isn't an anomaly. Apparently, some scientific studies of "happiness" have been done (this is what comes from having a friend visit from California, you know) and some surprising things have been discovered. One is that while people with children stay married more often than people without, people without children report themselves as being "happier." And, sure enough, if you live past 80, to your 90s, you remember your 80s as the best age. Why?

Because those perennial questions that dog us in our 30s and 40s (and beyond, I guess) like, "Am I doing what I should be doing? Am I living a worthwhile life? Am I performing well at the things I see as my job? Is my child developing well? Do we have enough money?" have all been resolved and set aside. Can that be true? That by age 80 we get wise enough to stop fretting? These ladies reported to Janet that they truly succeeded, in their 80s, in living in the moment. Enjoying what was there to be enjoyed, without looking ahead and fretting. Or maybe... ladies with that attitude were the only ones to live past 80.

I don't know. But it made for very good lunch conversation over teriyaki salmon, tuna sashimi, chilled steamed spinach with sesame sauce, and a softshell crabs in a fresh-made roll just for us. I'll tell you one of the many things that make me happy, that have lasted from childhood till now: the fun and joy of girlfriends. A lunch like that, swooning equally over bigeye tuna and John Malkovich, makes life worth living and suddenly sunnier than it was an hour or so before. Girlfriends are wonderful.

Here's another thing that makes one day in the life of being almost 45 in London a great thing. I still am allowed to leave the house at 3:50 every weekday, walk about 8 minutes to Avery's school, wait a moment with a paperback to amuse me, and out comes my delicious daughter, in some outlandish outfit (white shorts with grey tights and a grey cashmere sweater, belted and the whole thing finished with hot pink Converse high tops). She's still happy for me to appear at school and walk her home, carrying half her load of books, stopping for a snack, listening to the day's accumulation of hilarious stories, gossip, complaints about lunch ("I had one bite of sausage and that was ALL, and WHAT is suet pudding?"), descriptions of people's outfits.

The main topic walking home with Avery and Emily on Thursday was, can Avery reasonably be expected to answer the door while John and I are at the Parents' meeting, receive the pizza and tip the pizza guy?

"How," Avery wails, "will I know that the guy at the door isn't some homicidal maniac?"

"Well," I say with laborious reasonableness, "He'll be standing beside a motorbike, wearing a helmet and carrying a giant insulated bag that will contain our pizzas."

"But there could be anything in that insulated bag!" Avery shrieks.

"It could even be a severed head," I say hopefully.

"My mother wants everything to be a severed head," Avery says indulgently.

"And it never is."

Off to the Parents' meeting, gazing at the head (not severed) of the school wearing a gorgeous woollen suit with a long, flowing skirt and perfectly, softly matching silk scarf, totally in control of every moment of her life, seemingly. How is that possible? I'd love to see the cracks, the real life somewhere. But it never happens. A gloriously controlled, kind, appreciative, elegant lady who never puts a foot or a word wrong. How, how.

Ah well, life cannot possibly be that perfect. But I offer you two vegetable side dishes that will make you think it can be, for just one dinner. With a roast chicken, or even just a bowl of steamed rice, these two dishes will enhance your week, dare I say it, your life. Your husband and child will thank you. And one more week will have gone by, however impossibly filled with changes and events and loved ones and craziness, and you'll be comforted by each bite.

Roasted Beets with Balsamic
(serves four enthusiastic eaters)

6 medium-sized beets, leaves and stems removed
generous splash balsamic vinegar
tiny splash chilli olive oil
handful chopped flat-leaf parsley

Lay out a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil (there is really no reason in life to buy any other kind, trust me) and pile the beets on it. Wrap completely in foil, and set in an oven heated to 450F, 220C. Roast for at least 1 1/2 hours and test by inserting a sharp knife into a beet from the outside. If it penetrated very easily, the beets are done. If not, err on the side of cooking longer.

Now, crucially, do NOT unwrap for at least 10 minutes. The steam generated by leaving the beets wrapped tightly will aid enormously in peeling the beets.

After at least 10 minutes, open the packet and grab each beet in turn, under flowing cold water, and simply slip the skins off. Trim the ends and cut each beet into bite-sized pieces, placing them in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with vinegar and oil and parsley and serve either hot, room temp, or cold. Lovely.


Button Mushrooms with Marsala, Thyme and Creme Fraiche
(serves four)

6 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 lb (1/2 kilo) button mushrooms
handful fresh thyme leaves
good splash Marsala
1 cup half-fat creme fraiche, 2 tbsps reserved
handful chopped flat-leaf parsley
sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Melt butter in a heavy skillet and add the garlic, shallot and mushrooms on medium heat. Toss and turn until mushrooms are slightly browned and the whole mixture sizzles nicely. Add thyme leaves and Marsala and cook until a thick, but meagre sauce develops. Add all but 2 tbsps of creme fraiche and stir well until mixed and saucy.

Just before serving, stir in the final 2 tbsps of creme fraiche, turning heat up, and then toss with parsley and season. Perfect.


A Work in Progress said...

I hope you won't be offended but I am so happy to hear that you do occasionally order in a pizza! The beets and mushrooms are a very Russian combination - I must try both. Have you ever used the vacuum packed pre-cooked beets they sell in the supermarkets here? I have used them in a soup, but would they taste as good eaten in a salad do you think? (Probably not...)

Casey said...

another gorgeously written post.

Kristen In London said...

I LOVE ordering pizza! If it's good. We order from a wood-fired oven place called Firezza, and that gooey, cheesy slice covered with rocket and prosciutto and black olives... heaven!

I don't like pre-cooked beets because they are too soft. Also, beware because some of them are soaked in malt vinegar which is very sour, I find. Plus I just find messing with beets to be fun.

Casey: thank you.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oh, my what a week you've had. It's always so hard to get back to a schedule after so many glorious weeks off. And January always seems so very busy.

PS You sound like a lovely mother :-)

Kristen In London said...

Thank you, Plane Ride, you always make me feel good!

No more jet lag...