Friday, 29 February 2008

Happy Leap Day

Today's The Writer's Almanac explained (very clearly, although I wouldn't want to paraphrase) why we have a February 29 every year. If you want to be filled in, check out this link.

By the way, wherever you are in the Universe -- Kelly Luedde and Derek Hudson -- Happy Birthday.

Although today's sky is the leaden gray of steel-wool, I saw a row of trees which had -- seemingly suddenly -- burst into snowy white blossom. It reminded me of a poem by May Sarton -- a keen gardener who always lived in northern climes. Her journals often describe her longing for spring. This poem is called Metamorphisis.

Always it happens when we are not there--
The tree leaps up alive into the air,
Small open parasols of Chinese green
Wave on each twig.
But who has ever seen
The latch sprung, the bud as it burst?
Spring always manages to get there first.
Lovers of wind, who will have been aware
Of a faint stirring in the empty air,
Look up one day through a dissolving screen
To find no star, but this multiplied green,
Shadow on shadow, singing sweet and clear.
Listen, lovers of wind, the leaves are here!

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Toad in the Hole and Rhubarb Crumble for tea

English spring is a cruel flirt.

Yesterday's blue sky and scudding clouds somehow gave way to a thick damp fog which clung cold and clammily to my gray fleece this morning. (No, I am not a sheep -- that would be my "walking gear.") Despite my piteous moans, (Bee, you always say it's too cold!), my walking partner declared that we would indeed walk the eight miles that we had resolved to walk.

WP and I signed up to walk the Edinburgh Moonwalk sometime back in early fall, when I was feeling fit and June seemed far, far away. Unfortunately, the Christmas food and drink debaucheries, plus the endless Birthday Extravaganza that is January, have rendered me chubby and decidedly dubious about my ability to walk 26 miles in under 6 hours. Even if it is in aid of a very good cause. Also, I am not a morning person and 8 am is never a good time for me. However, this is exactly why we have friends and walking partners. Without WP -- a stalwart British sort who went to boarding school -- I would have probably gone home and gone back to bed; with WP's gentle bullying, I did indeed manage to walk eight miles through the foggy forest.

Unfortunately, my delight in this accomplishment was rather dimmed by my dismay that my broadband service was on the blink! Only three days into blogging and already I've hit a technical snag! My afternoon was spent in that particular Purgatory where technical support persons from India dwell. First, you go through the first circle of hell: the automated telephone system. After much choosing of various options and listening to bizarre elevator-ish music (but not that soothing), you are finally transferred to a living person who, unfortunately, you can't understand very well. In my case, this is due to the inevitable clash between the Texan and Indian dialects -- but also to my lamentable knowledge of the workings of my own computer system. There was a lot of "What? Can you say that again?" from me, and a lot of "Madam, will you please listen to me" from my Indian interlocutor. Sometimes we would get cut off . . . was that really an accident? . . . and I would have to start over. At one point, we discovered that my particular kind of no-name modem (which caused much dismay, as I kept swearing there was no "make" to be seen) had to be handled by a different department. Anyway . . . despite the good time being had by all, I did have to eventually abandon the fight in order to pick up my kids from school. (Later, Sigmund turned on the computer and said, with his customary post-workday impatience, "There's nothing wrong with it! SEE!" Well, yeah . . . now.

This brings me to the subject of English comfort food. Somewhere between the weather and my computer frustrations, grew a need for comfort that can only be assuaged by a certain kind of food. Tex-Mex and a frozen margarita would have done the trick, but since that is not available I had to resort to my second favorite: English "stodge." Stodgy is one of those English words that I love. Although "stodgy" is not an admirable quality in a person, it can be a delightful quality in food. Bread pudding is perhaps the most stodgy food; but for a close savory second you can try "Toad in a Hole." Some people might be turned off by this description; I suppose it is understandable that a person might not care for a slimy amphibian in batter. I am the sort of person, though, who admires the style of English quirkiness that gave the world stodgy recipes with names like "Spotted Dick," "Gooseberry Fool" and "Eton Mess."

"Toad in the Hole" is a very simple recipe. Basically, you make up a Yorkshire Pudding batter and throw it in a hot roasting tin. Then, you arrange some browned sausages (or "bangers" in the local parlance) on top and cook in a very hot oven. This gives you a sort of sausage sandwich, I guess, but the the Yorkshire pudding is light and crusty on top and almost custardy in the middle -- and the whole is "infused" (my daughter's actual description) with a lovely sausagy flavor. I have skinny kids who come home from school ravenous and can be fed this kind of thing. For Sigmund, I provided a healthy lentil soup with just a small portion of Toad in the Hole on the side.

I got the recipe from Tamasin Day-Lewis's Kitchen Bible. This is a charming, useful book -- particularly helpful for the beginning cook as it starts with "Easy Things" and "Simple Skills" and moves on to chapters like "Classic Recipes" and "Serious Skills." I particularly like it because it contains so many of the English classics -- for things like Victoria sponge or Yorkshire pudding -- that you just can't find in most contemporary cookery books. Tamasin is a serious foodie; another good read, if you enjoy reading about the quest for the best and like a few starry anecdotes casually strewn between recipes, is her latest -- Where Shall We Go for Dinner?

Has anyone but me noticed the many similarities between Tamasin Day-Lewis and Nigella Lawson? Daughters of famous fathers; Oxbridge educated, posh, well-connected; 40ish but still overtly sexy; flowing dark hair; sensual writers who favor lots of adjective and adverbial embellishment. One major difference, though, is that Nigella has gone very commercial (and some would say almost cartoonishly over-the-top). Still, I love Nigella . . . and ignore Sigmund's mockery of her latest venture, Nigella Express. (For months, every time her name came up he would simper, "It's expresssssssssss," with a lascivious leer.)

I honor Nigella because she does write beautifully about food and she has shared many delicious recipes with me. For instance: for many years I've hated and dreaded the brussels sprout. You can ignore the sprout all year 'round if you want, but you leave it off your Christmas menu at your peril! In her wonderful book Feast, Nigella gives a recipe for brussels sprouts which are tarted up with chestnuts, pancetta and Marsala. You can actually still taste the sprout -- but it has been magically transformed into something delicious! Also, it mushes up so nicely flavor-wise with the turkey and roast potatoes. Probably the Nigella recipe that I love best, though, is for Rhubarb Crumble.

Rhubarb Crumble is ideal comfort food: it is just stodgy enough, but you can be "comforted" by the fact that you have actually eaten a portion of fruit with your pudding. It is the perfect late winter dessert because the beautiful pink rhubarb is actually in season and just the antidote to one too many apple pies. It is sweet and tart all at the same time. It is also stupendously easy and quick to make -- and therefore, just the thing when you have had a stressful day. (If, that is, you agree that rubbing butter into flour is a comforting thing to do.) What follows is Nigella's recipe . . . I have made it many, many times and it has never failed me.

(I have slightly amended the instructions for brevity's sake.)

1 1/2 lbs. rhubarb (chopped into 1/2 inch pieces)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 oz butter
1 T vanilla
1 T cornstarch

Toss the following together, and then cook for about 5 minutes in a pan over medium-low heat. You can do this bit ahead of time; stash it in a pie dish and stick it in the frig until you are ready.

Proceed with the crumble:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
4 oz butter
3 T vanilla sugar
3 T brown sugar

Mix flour and baking powder together; (or use self-rising flour and save 10 seconds!) then rub in your butter until it resembles oatmeally crumbs. Stir in the sugars, and then settle the crumble over your rhubarb filling.

Bake for 35-45 minutes in a 375 degree oven. My oven only needs about 35 minutes. It should be golden on top -- not too brown, and definitely not charred.

Most English people like custard on crumbles; Americans would prefer a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it. I think it is perfect on its own, hot, cold or lukewarm.

It is ideal for breakfast . . . and if you've fed your family something like Toad in the Hole, you can be assured of having generous left-overs for morning noshing. I myself enjoyed a bit of rhubarb crumble with a cup of tea for elevenses. Despite the fact that the British Gas boiler-man is here -- due to our lack of heat in part of the house -- and despite the weather being just as February-ish as yesterday's, I am having a much better day today.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Daffodils; or, a defence of the countryside

As I wait for the Charity Furniture Project to come pick up some of the remnants of our life -- now lovingly "stored" in the garage -- I ponder the suitability vs. desirability of various "waiting" projects. Although my children have begged me to buy some food, clearly I cannot leave the house and risk missing the appointment that will rid me of the last of our Ikea bookshelves, the bedside tables which have marks dating back to 1991, or the wicker Peacock chairs that were never comfortable to sit on in Trinidad and really don't work with our English Barn decor.

Hmmmm. . . Housework? (best take a moderate approach; I've already unloaded the dishwasher) Laundry? (better not; the washing machine is about to pack up and the dryer makes a horrible sound) Check email? (already done it, and none of my American friends will be writing at 5 am) Blogging? Now that's a good idea!

It occurred to me, as I was doing the school run this morning, that I was bit harsh on the dear old English countryside in my inaugural blog. The day dawned clean and fresh; and frankly, it is easier to feel mentally and emotionally balanced when the sky is blue and there are fluffy Turneresque clouds. It's that gray gloom that sets my teeth on edge as I heave the Volvo onto the muddy verge in order to let another lorry or Land Rover inch by.

But in the sunshine, the brilliantly yellow daffodils hold forth and remind me of something that I really love about England: the flowers! Bulb flowers have so many good qualities: they promise spring, just when you are sick to the teeth of bare-branched winter; they appear year after year, despite neglect; and they move around a bit, so that you never know quite where they will pop up. Last spring I planted narcissus bulbs in some old wooden buckets, and they bloomed gorgeously . . . when we were in Texas for the Easter holiday. During the summer, I planted on top of them with something purple (I can't recall the name) and really forgot about my hibernating narcissi. Rather suddenly, it seemed to me, they have popped out again . . . rewarding me, rather undeservingly, for my minimal gardening skills.

Narcissus (baby daffodils is the correct, ahem, botanical term)
Blooming in February; possible evidence of global warming?

I read somewhere that when Wordworth wrote these immortal lines:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze

it was well into April. Now: there are late-blooming daffodils, and the Lake District is considerably farther north than West Berkshire. However, early February daffodils are a speck early and probably incontrovertible evidence of global warning. When you are a warm-blooded Texan living in England, it is difficult to remember that warmer winters are a bad thing.

As with all things, there are going to be winners and losers with the advance of warmer temperatures. Apparently the Maldives are going to be one of the first places to go underwater; when presented with this fact, my unromantic husband (who can clearly not take a hint) unemotionally declared that "there wasn't much there already." (Reminds me of Gertrude Stein: There is no there there.) The more northern reaches of Canada, on the other hand, can only benefit from a bit of snow-melting.
I know that some of you are mired -- quite happily -- in snow at the moment. But as for me, it is bliss to drive through the countryside (soundtrack of Vaughn Williams' Lark Ascending) admiring the "host of golden daffodils" which promise spring.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Who me? A Blogger??

Life is, as we all know, unpredictable.

One short month ago, I was ignorant of the ways of blogging -- and not just ignorant, but oblivious and indifferent, too. I pretty much associated the whole phenomenon of blogging with a geeky person (probably a boy, in my mind's eye) who was attached to his hand-held device and had intimacy issues to boot! In the sake of full disclosure, I am a sad Luddite -- too pathetic to even want to change -- who still needs her 13 yr old daughter to load her IPod.

However, life (as mentioned) is unpredictable . . . and I certainly never imagined that I would be living out some of my finer years in the English countryside! I like margaritas, Tex-Mex, good hamburgers, Shipley's doughnuts, movies, buttered popcorn, Coke icees, bookstores, outdoor tennis courts, and blue skies . . . none of which (well, almost none) can be found in West Berkshire. I do NOT like mud, drizzle, the color gray, dogs, horses, hunting, shooting, did I mention mud? Of these, the countryside has plenty. Indeed, I went to a dinner party not so long ago and almost the entire conversation revolved around shooting, English country-style. You might think that a Texan would be entirely at home in a conversation about shooting, but nay -- as a small child I couldn't stand the sight of the bloodied dove my brother laid so casually on the kitchen counter, and I haven't altered in this opinion.

I already did my time in a small town -- Temple, Texas (for the record) -- and I am like an escaped prisoner who can still feel the phantom chains and never, never wants to go back. Some of you may remember the classic Talking Heads song Once In A Lifetime. If you went to high school in the 80s you will undoubtedly remember the accompanying video in which lead singer David Byrne repeatedly slapped his forehead open-palm style, wildly rolled his eyes, and questioned: Well . . . How did I get here? When I was a high school senior, my late great friend Andrea Jarma and I used to go around imitating David Byrne and feeling rather clever and certainly to-the-point. It is a phrase that has resounded through my mind more than once this last eighteen months.

So, you may think high school reminiscences (from a time when MTV was the new thing and we were all making cassette tapes for our boom boxes) are a tad digressive from the subject of blogging . . . but let me assure you, it will all come together. The truth is: I can live without a good margarita, even though I may not like it and will certainly feel my life to be impoverished by that lack. HOWEVER . . . what I cannot live without are the good conversations/lively banter/sympathetic ear/enjoyable bitch-sessions which accompanied the margaritas. And this is what I've really been feeling short of these days. I have lovely, lovely friends in England . . . but they aren't doorstep friends. They aren't "let's meet at the Taqueria" friends, or let's catch a movie friends.

I've always had good luck meeting like-minded people . . . maybe not LOADS of them, but always enough to satisfy. For some reason, my luck seems to run out; I just haven't been to convert any of my new acquaintances -- some of whom are perfectly pleasant -- into true friends. Although my husband "Sigmund" is a good sort with many fine qualities -- let's face it, he's a fairly taciturn fellow who will never be able to meet my chatting needs. My two daughters are wonderful chatters -- but conversationally, it's still a one-way street down a cul-de-sac with them. They have their own tribes, and that is how it should be.

So, loneliness established: One frigid morning in late January, I decided to google Laurie Colwin, one of my favorite authors . . . and I ended up reading this essay. I felt such kinship with the author of the essay, that I ended up reading her blog . . . and then writing her a fan letter. This lead to other blogs, which lead to emails, which lead to blog-posting, and on and on. I remembered that my friend Jenni had give me Julie & Julia (about a Texan living in NYC, who starts a blog and changes her life) and thus discovered another kindred spirit. Suddenly I had friends in New York City! Well, perhaps I exaggerate . . . but still! It was empowering; I realized that I could just go into cyberspace and FIND those like-minded friends! There actually are people who want to talk about Laurie Colwin or gingerbread or how to make a good biscuit or Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. Maybe not in Berkshire . . . but somewhere! I needn't be limited by what chatting at the school gates threw my way. It was an exciting process because it reminded me of the buzz I've always gotten from making friendship discoveries; it also reminded me of the joy that I used to get from writing. I've always been good at enthusiasm with that little frisson of euphoria . . . feeling it again made me realize anew how much it had been missing in my life.

It is difficult to keep in touch. I send this out to old friends with the hope that it will be a way of keeping a fresh conversation open. I also send it out (with a fervent belief in serendipity) to the Great Internet . . . in the hope that it may bring a new friend or two into my life.

Please feel free to comment!

Last thought: Please check out some of the blogs I have listed. They are my first favorites, but I'm sure -- now that I've become addicted -- I will be finding new ones, too. All of you Texans MUST check out Homesick Texan. It is a treasure-trove of recipes -- whether or not you live in a place without Rotel.