Monday, September 27, 2010

The Five O'Clock Shadow

Despite the recent heat wave here in Los Angeles, autumn is still creeping in on dark furry haunches and settling over The Kenmore Arms.

No more endless summer. These days, when Luca does his homework after school, I call upon a solicitous halo of light to protect him from the encroaching shadows.
So engrossed is he in his math problems that he doesn't notice me watching him from the living room. He sits on his heel, scratches out answers with his pencil and interrupts the fitful silence with a high-pitched rendition of Lady Gaga's "Telephone." He knows every word.

Hello hello baby you called? I can't hear a thing
I have got no service in the club you see see.
Wha-wha-what did you say? You're breakin' up on me
Sorry I cannot hear you, I'm kinda busy.

K-kinda busy
K-kinda busy
* * * * *

I love this time of year. Houses love it too, I think. In contrast to summer which is all about communing with nature, autumn brings with it a reawakened sense of domesticity. Homes become hives of activity, don't you find? These days, I find myself in the kitchen more often, poring over recipes, tidying shelves, polishing silver and filling the pantry with tasty ingredients so that when the baking mood strikes, I'll have everything at hand.
This past Friday was my turn to host a bi-monthly dinner with four trusted friends that we call "Girls' Night In." It's a much-revered outlet for us; we check in with each other, discuss what's new and usually end up talking late into the night about issues near and dear to us all. All conversation is sub rosa; nothing leaves the table. It's group therapy with people I love; I couldn't live without it.

I had already decided on making butternut squash soup as an appetizer and wasn't going to let the heat deter me from making it. (Besides, it always cools down at night here.)
Originally taken from one of my favorite cookbooks "Great Food Fast", I've modified the recipe slightly (it stipulates 4 cups of water, but I use chicken stock; also, I omit the 1/4 cup of fresh orange juice) to give it a more satisfying depth of flavor. I serve it with a dollop of créme fraiche and a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds.

Timesaver Tip: You do NOT have to peel the squash (quite a tricky task and one which makes some people avoid butternut squash entirely). Just wash the skin well and chop into pieces (see below). It completely dissolves into nothing when you purée it. Thanks to my husband for discovering this.

Pureed Butternut Squash Soup (adapted from Great Food Fast)
Serves 4; Prep Time: 25 minutes; Total time: 45 minutes

2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 piece (2 inches) peeled fresh ginger, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 3/4 pounds butternut squash, seeds removed, and flesh cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Coarse salt and pepper
Creme fraiche (optional)
Spicy Pumpkin Seeds (optional; recipe below)

1. Melt the butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Cook the onion until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and squash; cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in 4 cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat. Simmer until the squash is tender, about 20 minutes.

2. Puree the soup in batches. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Serve hot, with creme fraiche, pepper and pumpkin seeds, if desired.

Spicy Pumpkin Seeds
1 cup raw green pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients and toss to coat. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet; bake until puffed and browned, about 10 minutes.

I'm telling you, it is beyond delicious.

We sat around the table until almost 1am and then I cleaned up everything in a herculean burst of energy so I wouldn't have to face a pile of dirty dishes in the morning. Needless to say, Saturday was spent in a more slothful fashion. I draped myself upon every chair or sofa within striking distance and spent the day with a thick book and a cup of tea within reach at all times. Dusk couldn't arrive too soon for me. I was asleep by 8pm.

* * * * *

On Sunday, I finished "Wolf Hall", Hilary Mantel's spellbinding (and Booker Prize-winning) masterpiece about Thomas Cromwell and it was a bittersweet moment when I finally relinquished my grip on it. It's a compulsive read -- which may account for the lack of a post last week; blame Ms. Mantel, not me -- and my brain is now craving another hit of Tudor England and its brutal splendor. (Fortunately, there's a sequel in the works.)
"Wolf Hall" is the perfect novel to read as the days contract and the nights grow colder, packed as it is with images of frigid castles, late night feasts, sweating sickness, fog, terror and of course the ever-lurking evil of life under Henry VIII.

Each copy should come with a stipulation:

For an optimum experience, read this book at dusk when darkness begins to tarnish the horizon and a five o'clock shadow slowly seeps across your floors. Should you choose to read under different conditions (i.e. while suntanning and sipping a fruity cocktail), results may vary.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Henry James Takes On House Beautiful

It's a time-worn cliché: "The more things change, the more things stay the same."

But could you ever envision that novelist Henry James' description of a 19th century English house would be so perfectly realized in a 2010 Manhattan apartment featured in House Beautiful?

Read the following extracts from "A London Life", written in 1887, and see for yourself how uncannily designer Daniel Sach's project for a New York townhouse matches the details of James' novella:

"Lady Davenant was in the drawing-room, in a low chair by one of the windows, reading the second volume of a novel." [I mean, come on. The book is even there!]
(House Beautiful, October 2010.
Interiors by Daniel Sachs. Photos by Ngog Minh Ngo.)

"The room had its bright, durable, sociable air, the air that Laura Wing liked in so many English things - its chintzes...its well-worn carpets, its domestic art - that of being meant for daily life, for long periods, for uses of high decency." [Do we need any more proof that the aesthetic sensibility of a comfortable room transcends time? Umm, no. Case closed.]
(Living room)

"The afternoon had faded but the lamps had been brought in, the smell of flowers was in the air and the old house of Plash seemed to recognize the hour that suited it best." [These dark-painted walls perfectly illustrate the seductive allure of a room at dusk.]

"There were quaint old maps on the wall...
(Children's bedroom)

...and 'collections' -- birds and shells....The place was a setting for rosy childhood." [Even today, exotic, far-off places and stockpiles of "stuff" remain the classic recipe for a kid's bedroom.]
(Children's bedroom)

"That was the story told by ever so many other things in the house which betrayed the full perception of a comfortable, liberal, deeply domestic effect." [The personal touches, below, so indicative of the soul of the owner, add the necessary layers of meaning and warmth which make a house a home.]

* * * * *
So here's the question:

If you had to pick a book whose interiors best fit your own home, what would it be? Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" with its stripped-down midcentury sensuality? Or perhaps the eccentric, cheerful chaos of Dodie Smith's "I Capture The Castle"? Or the simple, spiritual comforts of Thoreau's "On Walden Pond"?

Talk to me.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Escape Hatch

It wouldn't have to be grand, my little sanctuary.

It could be a wee shed tucked behind the house at the bottom of the garden, like Roald Dahl's was.
(Roald Dahl's writing shed, via the Guardian)

Yes, I know it's barely wider than a sofa, but its diminutive nature appeals to me because there would be no room for distractions. Give me a worn armchair with plumped cushions, a stack of books, a wooden lap board for my computer and an old wireless tuned to Radio 4 and leave me be. I could travel to the other side of the world during the day and still make the 3pm school run.

What I Would Read:
"The Sound Machine" , Roald Dahl

What I Would Drink:
PG Tips Classic Blend

What I Would Listen To:

* * *

And look at this little round house. It's straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien, don't you think?
(via the Guardian)

In my fantasy, I have taken it on a six month sublet from Bilbo Baggins while he's off on his journey to return the Ring. In the novel, the house has "paneled walls, tiled and carpeted floors, polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats" -- and I'm sure this one does, too. I can see myself here dividing my time between reading, writing and lots of productive puttering (tea-making, scone-baking and gardening, for instance).

What I Would Read:
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
One Pair of Hands, Monica Dickens
The Bucolic Plague, Josh Kilmer-Purcell

What I Would Drink:
Homemade elderflower cordial

What I Would Listen To:
"The Old Walking Song", Charles McCreery

* * *

Last year, I wrote about my deep love for gypsy caravans...and the passing of time has not cooled my ardor.
(via tumblr)

The caravan above isn't on wheels but mine would be because the idea that I could pack up at any moment and head off on some romantic, restless, come-what-may adventure totally appeals to me in theory. I would toss big kilim pillows on the floor and hang billowing curtains in the doorway. Letting my hair grow and donning peasant blouses and long ethnic skirts goes without saying. I would be Talitha Getty on the outside and Bruce Chatwin on the inside.

What I Would Read:
Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
City of Djinns, William Dalrymple

What I Would Drink:
Créme Yvette liqueur

What I Would Listen To:

Editor's Update: A prior commitment prevented me from making the Nathan Turner lecture on Sunday. Did you go?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Nathan Turner's Secrets

(All photos via Nathan Turner's website)

It's no secret that Nathan Turner is one of my favorite Los Angeles designers. His elegant, relaxed interiors are always the perfect mix of bohemian elegance and laidback glamour, rich with color and texture and antiques that beg for the story behind them.
It's an art, this seemingly effortless ability to put a room together (as all of us know who have attempted the task). Like many of you, I always find myself poring over the various ingredients of rooms I like in magazines, trying to figure out how I can recreate the same feeling for my own home.
A great room is more than stylish, it's generous: it welcomes you, urges you to get comfortable and sprinkles a little of its stardust on you. It makes everyone wittier and prettier. It doesn't intimidate or overwhelm. It sets the stage so that its inhabitants can shine.

Imagine my delight then when his office emailed me the other day to tell me that Nathan will be giving a special decorating class this Sunday, September 12th at 10am at the Pottery Barn in South Coast Plaza. (Call 714-966-2482 for full details.) It's called "Living Room Makeover: Designer Tips and Tricks" and people, it's free. He's also going to answer questions so bring your design quandaries.
I've been lucky enough to meet Nathan a few times and he is just as lovely and charming as you think he would be. I say we all meet there and learn how to create the room of our dreams, don't you?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Remains of the Day

Have you ever noticed that if you enter your dining room after a party has just ended, the mood is still there? For a few enchanted moments, the room quivers with displaced energy. The seats are still warm, the wine stains on the tablecloth are still fresh and the chairs still lean into one another in a visual echo of recent conversations.
(After the meal, Scotland, August 2010)

As you clear the plates, brush away the crumbs and smooth out the creases on the linen, ghostly traces of laughter and conversation linger in the air. Let them seep into your soul as the last delicious aftertaste of a day well lived and gone too soon.

Don't you think sharing a meal with friends is one of life's great pleasures? And don't you think "now" becomes "then" way too quickly these days?


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