28 January, 2010

Salinger and spinach





























Oh, it's hard to get old! My daughter has reached an age I can remember BEING. I watch her struggling with homework, getting excited about drama auditions, running home with a friend to decide what to wear to a party, getting her first hairdryer and curling iron! And I remember. I don't think I was anywhere near as accomplished, self-confident or worldly as she is. But I was there. It's not that I miss it, but I am a bit envious of all that she has before her. As much as I'd like to relive her baby- and childhood, I'd like to relive my own life, only do it MUCH smarter. And maybe that's what I dream of, for her.

But we all have to be teenagers, with all the glory and pain that that entails. And to underscore my minor melancholy, today the world lost J.D. Salinger. I'll admit it: I thought he had been dead already. But even so, it is sad to think of a world deprived of his genius. It's been years since I even thought of him, but my teenage years, the years Avery has just on the horizon, were enormously brightened by his words. Not "The Catcher in the Rye," that classic that we were all meant to read,
but "Franny and Zooey," and "For Esme, With Love and Squalor." These rich, upper-crusty, introspective, dysfunctional, wonderful Glasses, these New Yorkers with their smart, snappy dialogue and a sort of American Nancy Mitford family life...

Esme. I can't find my copy tonight, which saddens me. When I was in high school, not an era of magical success for me, I nevertheless had one particularly intelligent friend who handed me a copy of "Esme," in "The Nine Stories," and he said, "This girl is you." How flattering and wonderful was that, to be compared to a fictional heroine of epic inspirational proportions. This friend and I have corresponded tonight, reminiscing about those young, sweet selves we were. How completely odd to think we're older than our parents were, then, when we were teenagers.

And Avery told me tonight that one of her favorite series of books, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket, contains many hidden references to J.D. Salinger! The orphans are adopted by Jerome (the "J" in JD is for "Jerome"!) Squalor and his wife Esme! The magic continues.

I was, of course, painfully influenced in my adolescent writing by Salinger's innovative way of italicizing only part of a word, according to how important that part was! My stories became ever more infused with tiresome Salinger-esque characters, smoking cigarettes down to where they burned the smoker's fingers, whining about alienation! But even to this day I remember being compared to Esme, and my teenage self wakes up for a moment.

I love watching Avery feverishly writing her stories, and objecting to bedtime because "I get my best ideas for writing when it's nighttime, and then I have to go to sleep!" It's as if I'm looking in a fuzzy mirror, seeing my childhood self in my green-flowered bedroom, upstairs in the house where my parents still live, hearing the television with "The Six-Million-Dollar Man" in the living room below, as I tirelessly wrote at my desk. Those stories are still somewhere in my childhood closet, I'm sure. My mother never throws away anything that anyone might ever want, bless her heart.

Well, I grew up. But I still love my words, so I suppose my youthful, heart-pounding inspiration by the reclusive Salinger still holds sway.

Grown up. Yes. And as such, these days, most of my creativity goes into what we eat! Today John and I hopped the Tube to take a trip to Piccadilly to run some errands, and while there popped in to Kulu-kulu for a sushi lunch. Fish, yes, plenty of omega-3, but almost my favorite dish is the chilled steamed spinach with a sesame dressing. And you know what? You can make it at home.

Chilled Steamed Spinach with Sesame
(serves 2)


1/2 lb baby spinach, washed

dressing:
3 tbsps soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsps sesame oil
2 tbsps peanut oil
6 tbsps tahini
3/4 tsp sugar
1 tsp honey
1 clove finely minced garlic

sesame seeds to sprinkle (1/2 tsp?)

Boil water in a large saucepan and plunge spinach in it. Boil, stirring, for 1 minute, then pour into a colander and rinse with COLD water. Now, squeeze the spinach for an impossible-seeming time, as more and more water is released from it. Expect just one handful of spinach left after squeezing. Seriously.

Chill spinach for at least an hour. Meanwhile, mix all dressing ingredients together very thoroughly.

When ready to serve, bring spinach out of the fridge and form into a log, then cut in half to form two servings, and drizzle with dressing (just a little, save the rest). Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

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

There will be lots of extra dressing. You can use it for two dishes I can think of right off the top of my head, either of which would be lovely right alongside the spinach, if you don't mind similar flavors in two dishes. With some steamed rice, you're good to go for dinner.

Sesame Salmon
(serves 2)


2 salmon fillets
dressing as above

Place the salmon fillets in an ovenproof dish and pour dressing over. Flip the fillets so both sides are coated. Bake at 200C, 425F for 25 minutes. Done.

Sesame Aubergine (Eggplant)
(serves 2)


1 medium eggplant
dressing as above

Dice the aubergine in 1-inch pieces (skin on). Scatter in an oven-proof dish, then pour dressing over and toss. Bake at 200C, 425F for 15 minutes, then turn oven down to 120C, 240F for a further 20 minutes. Toss again and serve.

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

These are contradictory dishes: vegetable and yet rich, spare and yet complex, cheap and yet luxurious.

It's that sort of yes/no, joyous/suffering, full/empty sort of contradiction that makes the best dish, whether it's on a plate, served up at dinner, or between the covers of a novel on a shelf, or in the life of an almost-grownup, teetering between goofy and elegant. I'm celebrating them all tonight.

24 January, 2010

Lovely Ladies Who Lunch and other adventures












A thought occurred to me in the middle of the night: sometimes I feel snowballed, as in, running in the trail of downhill snowball, by events that come around only every few weeks or months, and then suddenly, whoosh, they're all there at once.

These things all happened last week. Writing class, with excellent advice given to me on piece now submitted to the next issue of Vintage magazine. Bless the editor's heart, to be interested in, of all things, a piece that was Campanology born on my blog a year or so ago, on the art of bell-ringing. Some goddess of editorial match-making must have been looking out for me, as this same lovely editor wanted my "Recipe File" for the magazine last year. I know that there are writers who complain about deadlines, but so far, not me: a deadline means someone wants my work!

Coming home from writing class I sat across from two men on the Tube: overcoats and shaking out newspapers, decrying the state of modern culture and the failure of "civil servants."

"I say, old thing, most of them not the LEAST bit civil and most certainly with no idea of how to be a servant!"

"Well, old boy, Churchill said something very witty you know, about two peoples being separated by a common language, he had an American mother, you know, a Vanderbilt or some such."

"What we need, what this country needs, is fewer small men making small mistakes, and more GREAT men making GREAT mistakes."

Coming from writing class, all about characterization, I felt I had been thrown into a Tube car thirty years ago without warning, with men who might have served in the War, came home to rationing and too few servants to look after one...

Then, you know, if it's January, it's time for Avery's sort of quarterly haircut, only this time it seems to sit atop a person who is changing right before our eyes: vintage Ferregamo pumps from an antique shop in Connecticut, silver Gap tutu, blue-spotted tights, pink mohair sweater, Hermes scarf purloined from me on her head, a general look of eccentric selfhood coming over her features. She's always had an eye for fashion, even as a toddler crawling around in a combination of corduroy, silk and denim, pulling open the door to the dishwasher so she could sit on it, surveying her world with skepticism and interest from that slight height. Then she would toddle over to the full-length mirror and look herself up and down, maybe to return to her room and change her socks.

We got a very funny email from one of Avery's teachers who happened to come upon her singing Tom Lehrer's "Chemical Elements" for her chemistry teacher... that combined with a very unusual fashion sense means we're NEVER BORED.

Of course, every few months along comes the Lost Property luncheon, which means that I, plus 30 of the best volunteers that Avery's school has to offer, dust off our hands, fold up the moldy swim towels, dirty lacrosse sticks, smelly tennis trainers, and gather together, in a pouring rainstorm, in my kitchen, to share gorgeous dishes of food. Ladies brought vegetable lasagna (chock-ful of butternut squash, carrots, eggplant and mushrooms), a salad of roast chicken, orzo, pine nuts, romaine lettuce and parmesan shavings. My dearest friend Annie brought her tiny meatballs stuffed with mozzarella, swimming in a sea of tomato sauce under a blanket of homemade breadcrumbs and cheese.

"Do you mind just getting this warmed up and gratineed, Kristen?" Annie mentions, so I push the casserole gently into the oven and move onto various other tasks, like gossiping. Finally I peek into the oven and it seems so SLOW, and nothing really bubbling. Why not put it under the grill for a moment?

Suddenly everyone seems to be coughing. "Open the garden door!" I shout, as my heart sinks and I open the oven door. Breadcrumbs blackened. The smoke alarm goes off.

"Is this just browned and tasty, or... carcinogenic?" Annie asks, scraping it off, the best of all possible sports.

Ah well, the afternoon was lovely anyway. Someone brought quite simply the best cheese EVER, something called Wigmore from Jeroboam's in Holland Park Avenue. Slightly smelly, creamy, meltingly rich. And a rhubarb tart, and a treacle tart with fresh whipped cream, a plate of Lebanese treats of honey and pistachios and pastry.

We all pitch in to tidy up a bit so Annie can give me a lift to school - I'm carrying a plate of leftover tart for Jamie and Avery to snack on! - , and then I pick them up at the gate, carry their clobber over to Jamie's mother's car where we pile in to head to the skating rink, everyone sharing the tart.

"I'll carry it in to the skating rink," Avery offers, "hidden like this beneath my sweater."

"Stick it in my skate bag!" Jamie shrieks, but Avery insists.

"No, between my two files it will be fine," and we sneak in, with our forbidden outside snack included.

Saturday we succumb to that other sort of quarterly impulse: Camden Market. Normally, of course, nothing could drag John to a place that manages to be both cold and stuffy, windy and full of cigarette smoke, and containing nearly all the people in London between the ages of 17-28. All in search of a dress from the 1960s and a pair of go-go boots, for an upcoming party given by one of Avery's friends. I say "normally," because in fact John will do a lot of things he won't normally do, in order to help Avery out.

Polyester dresses by the YARD, stinking of the ages, all the shops playing the Bee-Gees but not quite synched up, so you end up hearing bits of "Stayin' Alive" sixteen shops in a row. All the shop girls convincing Avery that each dress is the one she needs, and also that she really CAN walk in knee-high (someone's knee, someone John's height) boots with platform, or stiletto heels. Finally we ran a dress to earth: purple, green, orange and blue rayon, with white collar, tie and cuffs, knee-high, and plastic jewelry to match. But no go-go boots. Not yet.

From the Market in a rush across town and across Piccadilly to the theatre district where we were to see a play and have sushi before, but it became clear with traffic that we wouldn't make it to sushi. That sort of semi-silent treatment between married people ensued. No one wanted either to blame the other or completely support the other, so we simply fumed slightly and then arrived at the theatre, picked up the tickets and realized we had an hour. Not quite sushi time, but time for something.

"What are you in the mood for, Avery?" Predictably, Italian. But huge queues.

"Would you rather run for sushi, or try this Korean place?"

"You guys aren't liking each other too much right now, so I'm not getting involved!" she wisely decides, so Jindalle Korean Grill it was, and actually, very good it was, although we were rushed. The place was virtually next-door to the theatre, so we could relax and enjoy grilled beef, duck, pork and chicken, while I wished for some sort of carb and we looked at our watches.

Finally, one of those classic things I seem to schedule for us to do once every few weeks and then suffer agonies of pressure as to whether or not everyone will enjoy it: theatre tickets. Last night it was "The Misanthrope" with Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley, and it was a total joy. Amazing rhyming schemes, energetic performances, very pointed social commentary set in contemporary life, but with recurring hilarious references to 17th century France. And some very funny lines... one from a celebrity playwright to a failed writer... "What do you mean, you're going to MAKE a scene? You can't even WRITE one!"

Home chattering about the dialogue (how much did Avery mind a lot of cursing? not much: "I hear a lot worse at school, from TEACHERS!"), the costumes at the party in the last scene of the play, how well Keira pulled off an American accent (pretty well). Tired on a Saturday night, from the bits of adventure that seems to keep us busy.

As for cooking, I can tell you that one of the favorite dishes at the Lost Property luncheon was my own:

Crunchy Colorful Slaw
(serves at last 8 as a side dish)

1/2 head each shredded: red cabbage, white cabbage, Savoy cabbage
3 large carrots, julienned

dressing: equal parts lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, fromage frais or yogurt
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1/2 tsp dried oregano
sea salt to taste

Simply shake up the dressing in a jar, then toss everything together.

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

This slaw went beautifully with all the lasagne and meatballs, and my roasted salmon.

But probably the most popular side dish was this invented by my friend Elizabeth:

Orzo Chicken Salad

(serves at least 8 as a side dish)

4 chicken breasts with skin on
Orzo – half a pack
Cos (butter or Boston, in America) lettuce – chopped into small pieces
Other mixed leaves including rocket
Asparagus tips
Pack of pine nuts (about 1 cup)
Block of parmesan
Flat leaf parsley - bunch

Vinaigrette
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons dry mustard
Maldon salt to taste


Roast the chicken breasts, cool, remove skin, and slice thinly. Set aside.
Meanwhile, boil water for the orzo and cook for 15 minutes and drain. Cool but make sure that you add olive oil so that the pasta does not stick.

Roast the pine nuts briefly – make sure they do not burn. Set aside.

Boil salted water for asparagus and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and cool.

Put the orzo in a large salad bowl and stir in the lettuce and rocket. Add the chicken and mix in. Mix in the vinaigrette and add the asparagus and pine nuts, covering all the ingredients with vinaigrette.

Sprinkle shavings of parmesan and chopped parsley on top, add Maldon salt to taste, stir again, and serve.

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

This week? Quiet. Peaceful. Uneventful. At least that's the plan, but then... it's only Sunday night. Watch this space.

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.

10 January, 2010

you say bison, I say buffalo















It's not Saturday night unless you set fire to something, that's my motto. Can I just tell you how close to the house this bonfire was last night? Normally both John and I are extremely, uh, responsible, but for some reason, we both thought it would be a fine idea to stack up all the tinder-dry Christmas wreaths in our ancient copper fire pit, and set fire to them.

The smoke! Simply plumes of it a mile high. I can't believe none of our neighbors called the fire department. Finally I made John shovel snow onto it and THEN the smoke was truly something to behold. We smelled like the Grim Reaper.

End of story: it's out. Of course the snow melted in the pit and then froze to the burned-out carcasses of the wreaths so that all John could do this morning was lug it behind the fence and pitch it into the snow. Now we can look forward to hauling it out in July.

It's always so hard to believe that six months will pass between now and our next vision of Red Gate Farm. It's odd to be here only in the most intense months of the year: we arrive in deep snow, and in the greenest days of summer, skipping the interim weeks of growth and decline. Before we see our beloved house again, there will have been plays and dinner parties in London, homework traumas, tune-ups at the orthodontist, Lost Property sales, job interviews, skating competitions, another issue of "Vintage" magazine will appear, containing another article from me. And then it will be July, and we'll be back.

The fridge is empty, the beds stripped, the candles removed from the hydrangea tree, mail stopped, the last laundry load done. In a few hours we'll be picking Avery up from the airport after her Fabulous Adventure (I survived!) and off we'll go to New Jersey to spend the night with our lovely friends, before heading to London in the morning.

I'll leave you with our last meal, a very American supper, and perfect for the sort of weather we're all having, on both sides of the Atlantic. Serve it with a crunchy slaw of red and Savoy cabbages, carrots and fennel. And I'll see you from London.

Bison Chilli
(serves 6)


2 lbs ground bison (buffalo)
1 white onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 soup-size can black beans
1 soup-size can red kidney beans
1 soup-size can Northern beans
2 large cans diced tomatoes
1 packet McCormick chilli seasoning
extra: chilli powder, ground cumin, turmeric to taste
sea salt and fresh black pepper
condiments: cilantro leaves, sour cream, shredded Cheddar cheese

Brown the bison thoroughly in a heavy, large saucepan. Add onion and garlic and cook for several minutes, then add all the other ingredients and stir well. Cook at a simmer for at least an hour. Better even on the next day. Serve with condiments and everyone can choose for herself.

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

Warm, hearty, stick-to-your ribs, snowy day perfection. Bliss!

07 January, 2010

definitely not panicking















I'm trying desperately not to feel like this little fellow, here at Red Gate Farm tonight.

How I would love to keep Avery tied to my apron strings, or stuffed in my jeans pocket, or even stored in a nice roomy glass Ball jar. Alas, tomorrow...

She gets on an airplane by herself.

BY HERSELF.

Now, as you well know, I have airplane issues. I try to acknowledge them so they don't people my nighttime dreams, but I think it's only reasonable that if you combine my big irrational fear of flying with my big irrational love affair with my daughter, there will be problems. Like those wonderful pairs of coffee mugs in London: "Keep Calm and Carry On" and "Now Panic and Freak Out."

But the important point is, I'm letting her go. Tomorrow she flies off to Charlotte, her big Christmas present, to spend two days with her beloved friend Anna who moved away from London a year and a half ago. How bereft they have been ever since. And isn't that the point of being mature? We overcome things we fear in order to make good things come true for the people we love.

Or something like that.

Sigh.

And in the service of living daily life and not freaking out, I must report that last night the kitchen drainboard and counters were full of the washed but un-dried dishes of yet another dinner party, which must mean one thing: Rosemary's gone. She's the kitchen elf of my blessed acquaintance, the magic helper who restores my house to perfection behind my back, folding laundry, shining silver, setting the table, lighting candles. And drying pots and pans. So along with the general loneliness of her empty bedroom, not helping her look for her coffee cup during the day ("I really thought I left it just HERE"), not having her bright and interested listening ear to all the details of daily life, we also having a drainboard full of dispiriting dishes to remind us of her absence.

And the dishes themselves? The detritus of, seriously, the LAST party of our Christmas holiday at Red Gate Farm. Last night it was my sister and her family, and Rollie and Judy, bringing with them several culinary gifts that reflect both who they are and who I am: a giant snowman-shaped Rice Krispie treat, a peppermint ice cream log, a chocolate ice cream log. These were from Judy, for the children. And from Rollie, for me? Two slabs of homemade smoked bluefish. He winks roguishly at me. "Judy yelled at me for putting them on top of the ice cream. They do smell, fishy, but I know you and you'll want them." Lord, how I do! "I even brought the crackers to go with," Rollie nudged my arm. I could easily have cancelled all of dinner and sat down happily to a plate of smoked bluefish and creme fraiche.

And because I was selfish and didn't feed everyone my smokey treasure, we helped ourselves instead to:

Rigatoni alla Vodka
(serves 8)


3 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 white onion, finely minced
5 cloves garlic, finely minced
2/3 cup vodka
2 large cans peeled plum tomatoes
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
1 cup light cream
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

1 1/2 lb rigatoni

Simply saute the onion and garlic in the oil and butter in a large skillet or saucepan, then add the vodka and cook high for 1 minute. Put the tomatoes through a food processor and add to the skillet. Stir together and add cheese and cream and season with salt and pepper, and simmer for at least 1 hour.

Cook the pasta and when it is drained, turn the heat up under the sauce and tip the pasta into it. Toss well and serve with LOTS more Parmesan.

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

Rollie and Judy. They never seem to tire of our questions about the past life of Red Gate Farm. "Where was the second fireplace? Did Tessie's heirs REALLY throw away all her china and rag rugs when they inherited the house? Was she a good cook?" Tessie, Tessie, the last loving inhabitant of this house, famously the first lady of her family to get a Christmas tree into the place. "Her father didn't believe in such things," someone told me when we bought the house. "So when her young man, John, brought on in the front door, we knew it was over, he'd won the day, and they got married."

Tessie's spirit lives on in the "borning room" at the back of the house, now the kitchen, double-heighted since the renovation opened it up to the old attic. And whenever Rollie and Judy come, they give us another tidbit or two about the past of this beloved place, ending always with, "How Tessie would smile, to see you here now, cooking and all." I think of her so often, more than I think about anyone else I never knew.

Today I drove to Greenwich to meet up with my girlie friend Alyssa from New York days, to shop and have lunch at Morello Bistro, to gossip and catch up in that elliptical style we have. "Are you wearing LIPSTICK, Kristen? Do I see lipstick on you?" "What's up with Elliot's tooth? Somebody HAS to take that scary thing out of his mouth..." Discussions that cannot be carried out on the phone about children's schoolbus schedules, Annabelle's bat mitzah plans and presents (ha, Annabelle, I gave your present to your mom and it's STILL a secret!), Avery's fashion sense described but still not to the extent that we felt comfortable choosing a dress for her at Rugby. I had no problem choosing a tiny little plaid woolly skirt with fringe, and a pair of houndstooth trousers, for myself.

And my lunch salad? Divine.

Morello Bistro's Beet Salad with Hazelnuts, Ricotta and Scallops
(serves 1, GENEROUSLY!)


1 tbsp butter
2 large sea scallops
3 tbsps ricotta
2 handfuls arugula
2 medium beets, roasted, peeled and diced large
1/4 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts

dressing:

3 parts olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar
chopped chives
sea salt and fresh pepper

In a heavy skillet, melt butter till it "stops speaking to you," as Julia Child would say, then lay scallops in the butter and cook on one side, high heat, for 2 minutes. Turn and cook for another 1-2 minutes depending on how you like your scallops cooked. Set aside.

On a large plate, arrange dollops of ricotta in three spots. Place handfuls of ricotta in the center. Scatter beets and hazelnuts across the greens and drizzle with dressing. Place scallops between the ricotta dollops. Serve with toasted bread.

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Simply divine.

Home safe and sound with nary a wrong turn (stop the presses) to an evening of mixed feelings for me: happy to sit on Avery's bed and help her pack, but Panicking and Freaking Out about WHY.

"So do you want this tiny t-shirt anymore, or can it go to the charity shop?"

"Oh, I wore that nightgown for YEARS. Save it for Jane, unless she thinks it's a dress."

"Do you really want to take the whole calendar of cute animal pictures with you to Charlotte?"

"Yes, I have to show them to Anna, plus here's the envelope of pictures from days that have already gone by."

"Is this sweatshirt REALLY dirty, or just sort of permanent lipsticky dirty? And what's that you're kicking under your bed?"

"Do we have time for a library run tomorrow before I go?"

So hard to believe that the next time Avery's installed in her tiniest-of-all living bedrooms, it will be July. Jane and Molly will be completely different and little Kate across the road might well have traded in her shoe obsession (they refer to her as "Little Imelda") for something more sinister, like cutlery. The house will be stuffy and airless when we come in, far from the chilly regions of tonight. Avery will probably be 1n inch or more taller. My bluefish will be in the freezer.

In the meantime, we have tomorrow to get through, I mean enjoy. And John and I will spend the next two days packing up the house for the long winter ahead. Then we'll collect Avery at the airport and I can breathe again.

Wake me up when she's back.

02 January, 2010

last holiday revels

















































Well, it's been a flickering and lovely end to the Christmas holidays... our anniversary lunch at Nobu on Wednesday was, quite simply, the best meal ever eaten by either one of us, anywhere. It's going to be painful to get used again to ordinary wonderful London sushi, because Nobu exceeded any of our golden memories, from Tribeca days gone past, when it was, unbelievably, our neighborhood hangout. The times, the times the maitre d' looked over the heads of hopeful would-be diners, telling them, "I'm so sorry, we're COMPLETELY booked," to beckon to us, with little Avery, and say, "Come right in, how's the family?"

All the old remembered favorites: the yellowtail tartare with caviar and wasabi-ponzu dressing, suspended on a bowl of ice. The tuna with jalapeno and cilantro, the tuna tataki with ponzu sauce, the bigeye tuna sashimi that a baby could gum, it was so impossibly tender! Soft-shell crab rolls, spicy tuna, giant clam sashimi. Finally rock shrimp tempura with creamy sauce, shiitake mushrooms and minced chives... all washed down carefully with a precious Matsuhisu martini complete with floating cucumber and sake...

And our conversation wandered everywhere: best play seen in 20 years of marriage? Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet in 1994, or David Suchet in Timon of Athens in 2000? Or "War Horse" last year? Best vacation? Seychelles, or Rome with Avery, or one of the endless English Landmark Trusts? Best Avery memory? Her school notification day last year. Favorite apartment in 20 years? Probably where we are right now.

While we were indulging in this unbelievable fishfest, Avery and her Nonna were uptown, revelling in shopping galore! Takashimaya, Bendel (where Avery acquired a peerless green flowery headband), Saks to see the windows and try on EVERY pair of shoes, and ending at Dylan's Candy Bar on 60th Street, where we picked them up in the late, bloomy afternoon. Happiness all around.

Awake the next morning to find SNOW! Snow falling with a vengeance, for New Year's Eve. Blowy bursts of flakes rushing past the windows, highlighted against the red barns and black tree branches, impossible to photograph and simply gorgeous. Festive and beautiful! How we worried that the weather would prevent our guests from making it from New York City, and in the midst of all of it, up pulled a car containing Avery's first best friend ever, Cici, and her lovely family, on their way from NYC to their house on the coast! Coffee all round, the kids out to give the pugs a walk in the fresh snow, all of us reminiscing as you do, with old, old friends (Avery met Cici when she was 3 days old!) with whom you've shared school days, September 11, gallery ups and downs, being separated by 3000 miles. And yet friendship endures. A shared history warms the heart, and seeing two girls (and brother Noah!) stretched up tall, with memories of their baby selves hovering in the background, brings tears to the eyes.


At sunset, they drove away, and Rosemary and I resumed our work of all day to prepare the New Year's Feast to come. Salmon to roast with olive oil and my beloved Fox Point seasoning, a side dish of cannellini beans with rosemary, breadcrumbs and parmesan, asparagus with hollandaise. Possibly Avery's favorite of the evening:

Prosciutto-Stuffed Mushrooms
(serves 6)


6 large flat mushrooms, stems removed, set aside and chopped
olive oil to drizzle
12 slices prosciutto, chopped
2 tbsps butter
1 small white onion, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted
sprinkle fresh thyme leaves
handful grated Parmesan or Pecorino
3 slices deli Provolone, torn in half

Simply set the mushrooms on a cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Then in a heavy skillet, saute the prosciutto till cooked and set aside, then add butter to the skillet and cook the onion and garlic till soft. Add breadcrumbs, thyme and cheese, toss the prosciutto in and mix well. Spoon the mixture into the mushrooms, top each mushroom with a folded half of Provolone, and bake at 350F for 20 minutes. Perfect.

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So candles lit, the Christmas trees looking lovely for one last evening, Anne, David and Kate trooped across the road for one more holiday party, and we had a stupendous time. There is nothing nicer than a whole SIDE of salmon, oven-roasted for 25 minutes, moist (though I hate the word) and festive and celebratory! Glasses of bubbly all around, Kate asking for Avery to sit next to her! I even forgot to toss the Parmesan in with the cannellini beans and no one seemed to mind, we ate like people possessed. Happy New Year's to everyone!

New Year's Day found us sledding in the back meadow with an enthusiastic Avery and a terrified Kate: not terrified for herself, but for the loved ones she saw putting themselves in mortal danger as they hurtled down the bumpy hill. "Done! Mommy done, Dada done, Avery done!" The sun slanted on the shimmering, crisp snow and we all remarked on the landscape. "I love this view of your compound," David said wryly, as we all surveyed the outbuildings. "Everything is falling down," we agreed with no great degree of dismay. Somehow that seems all right, dark, weathered boards creaking under the weight of cracking glass and heavy snow. Weathered is the word for our whole property, here at Red Gate Farm.

Finally, the last celebration of the holiday season: prime rib at my sister's house! My brother in law is supplied with every possible gadget and receptacle to make cooking such a scary piece of meat fear-free, and John helped by supplying advice from the sidelines about thermometers, bone contact, the usual backseat driver nonsense. I escaped all the decision-making by creating place cards with dear Jane ("I love these markers, they're so... chemically!") and Avery, while Molly slithered around underfoot. My sister was as usual the most patient of all people, being everything to everything, while Joel supplied his gorgeous hot artichoke-cheese appetizer. There is nothing better.

Joel's Hot Artichoke Dip
(serves 6-ish)


1 cup artichoke hearts, drained of oil and chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

Simply nonstick-spray a large ramekin or several small, then mix all and decant mixture among the ramekins. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes. Serve with crackers.

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A perfect celebratory end to the festive season: my sister's house glowing with the craziness of Jane and her "Cerebral Hullabaloo" Twister-like game, Molly's furrowed brow and determined "transferring" of her hand from one walking-helper to another. Warm, family, red meat. Nothing could be better.

Home to electric blankets to protect against the cold, snowy wind, and a midnight snack of a lime cookie from Rosemary's stash, packed in her carry-on. Who else has a mother in law who arrives with gingerbread men, cappuccino cookies, lime cookies, Chex Mix, brownies and homemade caramels? They all bring out the hidden sweet tooth in me... but I think it's more the secret ingredient: love.

It's over, isn't it? The packing of holiday fun into suitcases, travel, the frantic wrapping and decorating to the background of "Charlie Brown Christmas," the oyster stew and turkeys and stuffing and Christmas cookies, the champagne and parties and celebrations. Some 300-something days from now it will all begin again, but for the moment, a sigh of happiness at family nearby, food treasured, presents opened and loved. Well done, everyone. Surfeit.