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Oh.my.god.

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shrimp tacos with avocado-cilantro creme

Tonight’s dinner, contemplated while at the market earlier but not begun until much later, was one of the very best, most delicious, can’t-wait-to-make-again dishes I’ve cooked in a long while. These are the shrimp tacos of my dreams. Tom’s too.

I started by making a marinade: freshly squeezed orange and lime juices; toasted and ground cumin and coriander seeds; garlic; minced habañero; honey; and some critically important supporters. Into that I folded shrimp and diced red onion and let everything marry while I made a cilantro-avocado creme with the ever-sublime crème fraîche. I also julienned some jicama and toasted some corn tortillas.

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shrimp taco filling

Do you know and/or use crème fraîche? It’s like souped-up, top-shelf, Grade A sour cream. I like it better for many reasons but in part because it has a vague element of sweetness to it that I fancy. It’s great in baked goods like scones, delicious stirred into pastas, lovely used in a marinade for chicken and, as I discovered tonight, a dear friend of the avocado.

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avocado-cilantro creme

I am feeling incredibly happy that A) I meticulously took notes while cooking tonight so that I can write this recipe up tomorrow, share it with you and make it many more times for us, and B) that Tom got home in time to enjoy it all at the peak of fresh. He was beside himself with pleasure: “This is absolutely delicious, Em.”

Indeed.

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Aah!
*We also enjoyed the perfect side: watermelon, feta, cilantro, olive oil and Maldon.

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Earlier today, I made a batch of cherry-rhubarb-hibiscus jam. It’s a recipe I made up last summer after creating my rhubarb-cherry-hibiscus crumble; the latter was so tasty, it seemed I simply had to try and turn it into a preserve so that its flavors could last throughout the year. It was a success, and I now have five new half-pints for my basement store. Today I used both Bing and Ranier cherries, both of which I find, when they’re plump and fresh, heavenly. They’re pretty, aren’t they?

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Bing and Ranier cherries

I then ordered new photos of the boys – on my to-do list for months!- so that I can update my frames. If you looked around our home, you’d think I had two toddlers on my hands. Though it sometimes feels that way, such is not the case. I was putzing around accomplishing other things when my dear pal, M, texted: “can I bring you some basil?”

“Um, yes!”

And by the way, I say ba-sil, not bay-sil. Both, FYI, are correct pronunciations, so even though T and Jack mock my preferred short ‘ba’, I’m going with it. #southern

A bouquet of fragrant, just-picked Genovese was soon mine, and after plucking the stems bare, I found I had three packed cups. Obviously, pesto. I added a half-cup of mint, about a quarter-cup of toasted pine nuts, the zest of a lemon, a half-cup of grated Parm, two cloves of garlic, salt and olive oil. Pesto is such a dynamite sauce. I too often forget about it, so standard and regular it often seems. But good pesto is an exquisite thing, and I’m thrilled to have this new batch.

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fresh pesto coming together

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the finished product

 

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I became aware, just two days ago, that the wonderful camp at which the boys will spend the next month ran longer each day than I’d thought. 8:10am drop-off, 4:45pm pick-up. Unless I’m out of town or they’re with their grandparents, we’ve never, and certainly not regularly, spent that much time apart. And because this camp is 25 miles away from home, out in MD, they are a real bus ride away.

When Jack was five -Ol’s age now- you couldn’t have paid me to send him off for so long. I’d have looked at you like you were certifiably insane if you’d even suggested the idea to me. I mean, the first time Tom and I left Jack with grandparents for the weekend, we recorded a DVD for him and instructed the gramps to play it. More than once. It’s possible they laughed at us. The way I am laughing at myself, now. In any case, you see what I’m saying. Sending him to camp, on a school bus, for a LOT of hours would not have happened.

So here I am sending them both off for some old-fashioned day camp fun. It sounded like such a good idea when I registered, and they were beside themselves at the open house we attended. Farm animals! A war canoe! Creeks! Dirt! Canoeing! Tending plants! New water bottles! And I was envious of the fun I knew they’d have. Downright covetous because I wanted to hold chickens and commune with goats all day too. I felt like such a courageous mom, enabling my boys to have this adventure together.

And then this morning came, and we rounded the corner of a city street and saw the big white school bus (why don’t school buses have seat belts?!) and counselors I didn’t know from Adam, and my heart started to pound just a bit, and my stomach talked to me quietly. I put a brave smile on my face and walked the boys to the bus, and I swear to you, quicker than you could blink they were on that bus finding seats together. I planted myself near their window, all blowing kisses and carrying on about missing them. And they tolerated me in an extremely loving fashion. As I took my first steps back to the car, I could tell they didn’t even notice. They were just so excited and open and willing to brave an unknown. And I burst with pride and called my own mother to tell her that my little boys were on a school bus all by themselves and she burst with pride too.

Then I realized that I had EIGHT and change hours to myself. And that I’ll have that again tomorrow and the next day and the next.

And that maybe I’ll be able to breathe a bit, to slow my pace, to tell Hurry to shove off. Perhaps I’ll be able to finish up on all the to-dos I’ve let languish and then invest myself in the activities I’ve been pining to do but haven’t felt able to prioritize. Maybe the wellspring that’s sourced my writing font will run rapid again, the bottleneckers, Stress and Busy, no longer rude obstructionists of which I’m quite tired.

Maybe I’ll have time to miss my boys, maybe even time to feel a bit lonely in my blissfully quiet home. Perhaps I’ll reclaim the stasis that enables me to be the kind of mother I really want to be, with real energy rather than pretend, with some of the lightness that’s been softly tamped over the past few months.

As the hours passed today, I felt the benefit of this time for myself and the promise of more tomorrow. I talked to several friends on the phone, sent flowers to a birthday girl, walked Percy -twice!- got some work done for the boys’ school, dealt with one pile of “important” crap. I felt Calm seep in and wash my brow with its cool hands. I day-dreamed while pitting cherries. I made a jam plan for tomorrow. And when the late hour drew near, I hurriedly put on a bit of make-up and some sandals so I could take my loves out for a celebratory dinner and dessert. They tumbled off the bus, filthy and happy and pooped. We got caught in a torrential downpour and laughed for two hours straight. It felt really good.

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Happy Jack

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2Amy’s makes everything that much better

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After getting the kiddos to bed last night, I instructed tired T to hit the couch while I whipped up some dinner. Earlier, I’d had the presence of mind to buy some burrata, anticipating a magnificent salad in which it’d co-star.

Do you know burrata? It is such a magnificently unnecessary cheese. In a good way, it’s like whipped cream atop a full-fat, full-sugar frappuccino. The latter is overwrought enough, so to then add whipped cream and probably a drizzle of something like caramel or chocolate is beyond the pale. Burrata does that but marvelously. It is, basically, a shell of mozzarella stuffed with a combination of mozzarella and cream. Good mozzarella is insane treat enough, but burrata? Sweet baby jesus in the skies, that’s like a seven year old getting to eat all his Halloween candy in one sitting.

Burrata is so delicate and rich and oozy in the best way that it’s sometimes hard to transfer from container to plate. As I carefully spooned two blobs onto my platter last night, they immediately spread like pancake batter on a hot griddle. What can you do with such decadence but just follow its lead??!! So, I let the cheese spread and plated around it: grilled plumcots (of the gods), mint, olive oil, Maldon salt and just a bit of very aged balsamic. I dare say Tom closed his eyes as the first bite hit his tongue and later licked the plate shiny clean.

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burrata, grilled plumcot and mint salad

I’d asked Tom to blacken the calliope eggplants on the grill so they’d be nice and smoky; I then made them into some baba ghanoush. A huge bowl of Sungolds went into a batch of my Lusty Sungold Love which I served with fresh ricotta and toasted bread. All in all, a heck of a meal.

DSC_8267

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lusty sungold love atop ricotta-smeared crostini

We then watched Argo, shocking ourselves with our ability to stay up for the entire thing. SUCH a good film! And Ben Affleck with that hair and beard? HOT!

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People, can you believe that the World Cup has still not ended? I mean, what are these guys’ families doing? I’d be over it by now if I were a German or Argentinian wife. So, good thing I’m not.

This has been a very nice weekend over all. It’s hot as Hades outside today but the sun is shining and all the rain we received last week has made for a lawn that almost looks healthy. On Friday, we went to a seriously lovely dinner party at some friends’ house. Great food, company, conversation and the delightful opportunity to don a dress and heels. Thank you M² for such a thoughtful and beautiful evening.

About three weeks ago, we finally admitted to the children that we owned a Wii and had for years.

“Is it IN the house?” they asked.
“Yes, in the basement.”
“OHMYGOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Fast forward, and Tom has ordered a second controller and he and Jack have become obsessive fruit ninjas and golfers. The intense chatter emanating from the basement right now is hilarious. Oliver is patiently serving as the most enthusiastic peanut gallery ever.

Why do cats mash their front paws back and forth on soft things, all the while purring and blinking their eyes? Nutmeg is so obviously in pleasure right now, just over my left shoulder (I’m on the couch). It weirds Tom out when he witnesses the massaging paws in action. How handsome is the Nut I ask you!?

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Nutmeg

This morning, Ol and I went to the farmers market where, per the usual, he ate the entire time that I shopped: popsicle, buffalo stick, apple cider, all manner of samples. GUESS WHAT I SAW -n- BOUGHT??? The first yellow plums of the season. This means plum-basil jam and a very happy Em-i-lis. We also came home with sour cherries, eggplant, rhubarb and some other treats. Beautiful stuff, isn’t it?

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calliope eggplant from this morning’s farmers market

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blushing plums

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In June of 2004, just after T and I got married and spent two weeks honeymooning in the interior Yucatan, we hurriedly packed up our Boston apartment and moved to Amsterdam. Tom was between years of business school and had secured an internship in the electronics division at Philips. I loathed my job in Newton, MA, had applied and been accepted to graduate school and so had every reason to enjoy the summer off as a newlywed in Europe.

Philips rented us a roomy duplex on Jacob Obrechtstraat, just steps from the Vondelpark (the Central Park of Amsterdam); it was way more apartment than we could have afforded on our own, and we were dumbstruck by our good fortune. We were a half-block from a movie rental joint, the Gall & Gall wine store and the tram stop at J.O. and Willemsparkweg as well as a quick walk from Museumplein (the Van Gogh museum, among others) and the Concertgebouw (a gorgeous hall in which the symphony played).

Though the weather is sometimes Seattle-like, Amsterdam is both utterly walkable and bikeable, and it soon became clear that owning bikes was a must, not least because bike lanes were as ubiquitous as those for cars. Three blocks down Willemsparkweg, away from the Museumplein, was the romantically-named Emmastraat on which resided Tweewielers Emma, a shop that both sold and repaired all manner of bike. The used bikes were the only affordable ones but were mostly reclaimed cycles from the Dutch politie. Because you can’t be an effective bike-mounted policeman on a flimsy bike, these were seriously heavy, indestructible steel-bodied rides. Tom immediately bought a black one as well as a heavy-duty lock and a canvas bag that mounted over the rear wheel.

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Em-i-lis and her ‘dam bike

I chose a not-much-lighter white bike and a double bag for groceries and picnics. Biking home from a market with fresh baguettes and flowers trailing behind us was a joyous way to live. Carrying the bikes up our steep front steps was less thrilling but necessary.

While Tom worked, I explored. Quickly, I discovered appeltaart, a butter crust tart stuffed with cubed apples tossed with a generous amount of cinnamon-sugar, and that if I turned left out of our front door and left onto Willemsparkweg, I was just one block from Small Talk Traiteur, a plate-glass-windowed bakery with exceptional appeltaart by the 3.25€ slice.

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You can see the Small Talk Traiteur; far right awning

I frequented the Albert Cuypmarkt (a street market in the De Pijp area of Oud-Zuid), coming to know the cheese- and fish-mongers, the stands with the best fruit and those with the best vegetables and breads. It was in Amsterdam, and at the Cuyp specifically, that I learned to shop like a European, buying just what I could fit in the various packs and pockets on self and bike and still get home. Cook, eat, market, repeat.

In Amsterdam, the complete benefit of multilingual’ness showed everywhere. All Dutch citizens speak Dutch, English and either German or French. And those are the underachievers. It’s amazing. At the Cuypmarkt one day, some Spaniards were attempting to buy a cheese but hadn’t the slightest idea what knoflook was. “Knoflook es ajo,” I was able to tell them. “Garlic (in Dutch) is garlic (in Spanish).” Everyone smiled, cheese was purchased and I wished more than ever to be a true polyglot.

As such, and because I was determined to force France on Tom as often as we could get away, I put out the word that I was looking for a French tutor. A highfalutin American expat named Suki (I met her during my one-time foray into the American Women’s ‘Club’) suggested her nanny, a young gal named Lisa. Lisa, an Australian exactly my age who was fluent in French, and I (and T) hit it off grandly, and many of my fondest ‘dam memories involve her. She was a great teacher and a ton of fun (and she left Suki), and we remain in touch to this day despite the distance between D.C. and Sydney. In fact, today is her birthday. Happy Bday, Lis!

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Em and Lisa- oh, what a night!

During weekends T and I didn’t take the train from Centraal to France or Germany or beyond, we biked and ate and drank our way through Amsterdam. It’s a remarkable city; progressive, sophisticated, energetic yet calm, worldly, outdoorsy, healthy yet not remotely ascetic. I couldn’t have enjoyed our time there more. Except for the time someone spat at a friend and me as we walked in the park; anti-American sentiments were heightened in some quarters then. Can’t say I didn’t understand to some degree, after the ludicrous Shock and Awe campaign and such.

Prior to weekends away, I would pick up sandwiches on the very fancy P.C. Hoofstraat -these incredible hunks of brood stuffed with oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, grilled artichokes, cheese and on and on- and then meet Tom at the station for a train to elsewhere. We traveled throughout France, Germany, and points in Eastern Europe that summer.

In Vienna, because we couldn’t warm to the city at all, we stayed in our outrageously luxe hotel (thank you, Starwood Points gleaned from Tom’s job of consultant before business school) room, pretending we were a couple of leisure, leaving only for Sacher Torte (totally overrated), meals (better) and the fancy-schmantz gym that was decorated in the way I imagine the interior of the Playboy mansion to be but offered free guest passes to guests of our hotel.

In Prague, we bought absinthe but were too nervous to try it. We walked the Charles and went to the Jewish Quarter, and I was able to sate my love of Mucha’s art nouveau work at the eponymous Mucha Museum. There, in the gift shop, T sweat buckets because I clearly did not understand or care about the exchange rate which wasn’t in our favor.

In Budapest, just in the E.U., we discovered Cafe Pierrot, dined there repeatedly and during glasses of icy Tokay enjoyed fascinating talks with Hungarians worried about the way E.U. inclusion might dilute their nationalistic identity and pride.

In Paris, we ate banana and nutella crepes near the Seine and raced for cover with our picnic after a sudden rainstorm washed us out of our spot in the Jardin du Luxembourg. We huddled on a narrow stoop under an ancient eave, drinking our wine, eating and laughing.

In Normandy, we ate crepes and huitres from the sea and drank calvados. In the Loire we downed crisp Sancerre and ate fresh crottins de Chavignol (incredible pucks of goat cheese). IN Chavignol! It was after his first bite of a sandwich which consisted simply of French bread stuffed with a fried crottin that Tom declared his love for France.

At Charles de Gaulle, we were told, on a rainy night, that our flight back to Amsterdam had been cancelled. Grudgingly Air France agreed to put us up for the night and did so by busing us to a suburban dive whose lobby was chock full of prostitutes. We awoke the next morning to find that Metro Transit had gone on strike and so basically had to hitch our way back to the airport.

In the Mosel Valley, we stayed at the Prum vineyard and toured it with the vintner, Red, a huge hulk of a man whose friendly smile and generous pours made us sentimental fans of good Kabinett Riesling forevermore.

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Em and Red, at Prum in the Mosel

In Cologne, we arrived and immediately tried to leave.

We thought about all this tonight as the Netherlands trounced poor Brazil. About how we always root for the Orange when they play anyone but the U.S. because of a magical adventure ten years ago. About how unbelievably long ago this feels -a lifetime, really- but how clear the memories remain. About how much we hope to go back. To rent a house and live there with the boys for a few weeks. But mostly about how lucky we were to have this unencumbered jaunt with little in the way of plan but much in the way of spontaneity and love, and what a gift we had in that.

 

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