18 January 2011

January column: Revels and Resolutions

“Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament.”                       – Hamlet, III. Ii.

My niece, Liz, is a fantastic hostess. At one happy juncture, we found ourselves living on either side of the Brooklyn Bridge, and we regularly enjoyed each other’s hospitality. Liz’s New Year’s Eve soirees were legend amongst her 20-something set of yuppie Manhattanites.
She would select a themed cocktail for the evening, and request that each guest bring an ingredient. One year, the theme was ‘Marvelous Martinis’. A week before the party, I received a cryptic missive from her: “You’re a peach! - Please bring a bottle of Peach Schnapps.”
I arrived, dressed to the nines, with schnapps bottle in hand, into a hive of activity. Little stations for each martini were arranged throughout the room. I milled about until I found my tribe - a small group of strangers gathered around a handwritten sign: “Peachy Keeny Martini”.
We introduced ourselves and huddled over our recipe. A wonderfully creative ice breaker, literally. We then saw the old year out by winding our way around Liz’s loft, sampling the delightful concoctions.
Not so delightful, however, was the resulting hang over. New Year’s Day was spent in a dim diner, in dark glasses, vowing to pursue better habits in the new year. Such post-holiday remorse propels my Manhattan chums, Kate and Abby, into a strict, annual detox. From the 2nd of January they forswear all food and drink, surviving for six weeks on a ghastly potion of purified water, lemon juice, olive oil, cayenne pepper and honey. I commend their effort, but have to laugh when I see them back on the booze and chocolates by Valentine’s Day.
That’s the funny thing about resolutions. The best of intentions can fall swiftly by the way side as old habits resurface ever so reliably. For this reason, I have always kept my resolutions hopefully vague: to be better (at nothing in particular); to do more (in a general sort of way) and to be happier (immeasurably). But this year, I have challenged myself to be less vague.
Fitness has been a regular part of my life. Running along the Hudson, walking Lucy around Washington Square Park, these were key features of my daily routine. I have lost both of these facets of my life, the latter most recently and painfully.
Grief can be overwhelming. Recently, I found myself faced with a decision: I could lie on the couch and cry, or I could go along to the new Aquafit class at The Glebe Hotel. I pushed myself, and went to the class. And, I am so glad I did. Afterward, I felt brighter, stronger and better able to cope.
The instructor, Trisha Quinn, was as bubbly and vibrant as a glass of champagne. In vivid colours, her business card offered me a daring proposition: “A Healthier, Happier Me!” I was intrigued by this bold assertion. How can she promise such a thing? Can she actually do it? I am resolved to find out.  

More on "Blue Monday" (if I'm completely honest...)

There is something to be said about this "Blue Monday" thing...
I will confess that I am feeling a bit gloomy today, about the state of my "career" (or lack there of). 
I know I'm not alone, and that there are hundreds of thousands of people looking for work, wanting to be and do more with their lives and talents, waiting for that big break/lift/push, whatever, whilst languishing in jobs that don't fully challenge nor wholly fulfill them.
And this is thing about Blue Monday. It's a signal, isn't it? A mid-way marker. An a-ha moment. 
A-ha! The day seems to say, here you are, mid-way through January, the year that started with such sparkle, hope, insight, promise and chutzpah!
"This is MY year!" you said to yourself. This is my year to kick some butt and take names!
And where are you now? Where now are those plans, goals and ambitions? 
New Year's resolutions tossed aside like crumpled Christmas wrapping paper; strategies for that "fresh start" lie festering like a moldy mince pie in the bottom of the bread bin of broken dreams.
Oh, dear.
It is in times like these that I remind myself that I spent the better part of the 1980s as a "Goth", and that gloom and doom can be as addictive as chocolate...

17 January 2011

Blue Monday

Today (17 January) is said to be the gloomiest day of the year. Can’t say I’m particularly gloomy, although I am a bit exhausted.

Yesterday, we were finally able to host the Family Get-Together we had planned to have over Christmas, but were unable to do so because of colds, flu, snow and so forth.

As the fates would have it, we had everyone round for Sunday lunch. The DEB made the invitation while we were dining at his brother’s, along with our lovely rellies from Cumbria. “Shall we have everyone to ours for lunch on Sunday?” he asked. There was general, enthusiastic agreement around the table.

My panic did not set in until the following day! My brother-in-law, a.k.a.,"The Guru" is an amazing cook, who entertains with an effortless abandon that would make Nigella green with envy! His partner-in-crime, a.k.a, "The Guru-ette", is a sassy, hard-core foodie, who likes what she likes.

My heart sank at the very thought of cooking a serious meal for these two. I mean, of course, I’ve cooked a ‘fun’ meal for them (big bowls of chili con carne) before we moved into our new house, and we’ve had everyone round for Indian take-aways, snacks and nibbles, anniversary party finger food, bacon butties (sandwiches) and even a World cup barbecue – but we’ve never hosted The Guru and The Guru-ette to a proper, full-on, sit-down meal.
The minute we returned home, I ran to my cookbook shelf for inspiration! Whilst fumbling through pages of Jamie, Nigella, and Easy British Classics, I sneaked a peek at The Perfect Hostess to see if good, old Rose Henniker Heaton could offer any cheering words of advice…
In her section entitled: “The Family Gathering takes place at your House” her advice is shrewd and curt:

“It sounds a lot trouble but it’s really worth it,” she begins. “Having the family to Luncheon,” she warns, “is a most difficult form of entertaining.” (Hmmm…I had already figured that one out myself.)

However, Henniker Heaton continues, “if, at the end of the meal everyone is still speaking civilly to everyone else, the hostess may congratulate herself on a successful party.” (…Oh dear. Thankfully, ours isn’t that sort of family.)

Once she moves on the menu itself, Henniker Heaton finally strikes a more pertinent note: “Cocktails,” she declares, “are absolutely essential!” (Finally, some useful information!)

I read recipes until my eyes blurred, and then decided the best way to decide what to cook was to take to the streets! Or, rather, to the shops. Off I went to my beloved Sainsbury’s for some inspiration.
Warning: Vegetarians, stop reading now.

Steak, turkey, venison, duck, goose, chicken, lamb, roast beef, pork…I was overwhelmed by choices. Before heading off to Sainsbury’s, I had a gander at BBC Good Food online, and the first thing that came to mind was Lamb.

It sounded to appetizing, delightful and fresh. After a long, cold foul (fowl?) winter - Lamb seemed a harbinger of a Spring that is surely, surely somewhere out there on the horizon? 

All the Lamb recipes I found promised an easy process, with a huge and impressive pay-off. Hmmmm…it all seemed a little too good to be true…

I walked briskly into Sainsbury’s, straight to the lamb section of the meat aisle. Legs, shoulders, joints, steaks, chops - lamb everywhere! My mantra was clear: “I will not be intimidated by lamb. I will not intimidated by lamb…”

Though that eventually gave way to a much simpler motto: “I will not cry in Sainsbury’s. I will not cry in Sainbury’s...”

Thank heavens, for the DEB. A firm hand on my shoulder, and his calming voice: “You can do this. And, I’ll help.”

In the end, it was lamb, and it was lovely! And more importantly, it felt so wonderful to be sharing a meal and hosting this wonderful, new family that I love so much!

Here is the recipe I used – a combination of several different ones, cobbled together:

Roast leg of lamb with rosemary & red wine gravy

1 leg of lamb - about 2½kg
olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced thinly
3-4 sprigs rosemary
sea salt
dried mint, thyme, marjoram, rosemary

Red Wine Gravy
2 onions,  sliced
2 shallots, sliced
2 garlic cloves bashed
300ml red wine
1 lamb stock cube

Heat the oven to 190C/fan 170C/gas 5. Put the lamb in a shallow dish and rub with olive oil all over the surface. Make holes in the lamb with a small sharp knife and stick slices of garlic and few sprigs of rosemary in each. Sprinkle with sea salt, pepper, dried mint, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary.
Line a roasting dish with the onions, shallots, garlic and rosemary sprigs. Drizzle with olive oil. Crumble the lamb stock cube over the top of onions, shallots, garlic and rosemary. Pour in the red wine. Place the lamb on top of the onions, shallots, garlic and rosemary.
Roast for 11/2 hours. Leave to rest loosely covered with foil for at least 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid into a jug and serve piping hot.

We had a super time. It was Uncle C’s birthday, and so the DEB and I got a cake and indoor sparklers. The sparklers failed to cooperate, but that just made the mood all the more festive! And, I realised there was no need for me to be have been so stressed, after all.