Getting Away from It All
Try To Remember You’re a Guest
When you're a persnickety houseguest, how do you redeem yourself? Start with eggs and apples.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the last month as a guest in the homes of family and friends.
I love that Benjamin Franklin took the bull by the horns and famously said, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Three days, hah!! Three days for both guests and hosts is a piece of cake. A week or more is where the little hints from the host, and (now that they suddenly feel just like part of the family), the guests themselves, begin to trickle in deadly fashion from our brains to our mouths. And if not verbalized, the terror that one’s thoughts might suddenly appear in a bubble over one’s head is always present.
Being used to living blissfully, selfishly, and obsessive-compulsively alone, even making a cup of coffee, or taking a bath before going to bed in someone else’s house can be a minefield. Who would know that the hot water tank is the size of a teacup and everyone else is left to brush their teeth and splash their faces in the cold? The person who didn’t ask is who.
And the difficulties with other people’s kitchen machines — dishwasher, microwave, coffeemaker, and sometimes even the oven — can prompt irritated cracks, after five minutes of fiddling, like, “…since I’m not Stephen Hawking…”
Once, I stayed by myself in my friend John Barrett’s (the best hair cutter in the world) house in the Hamptons. He was away in the south of France, and honestly, I’m not stupid, but could I work the coffee machine? No, I could not. So after two days of walking into the village for a cup of coffee, I resorted to calling him in Cannes. “Darling, just press the on button,” he said condescendingly. Trust me, even with a flashlight and my fullest attention it was all black-on-black German minimalism and not obvious at all.
But let’s get back to a kinder mindset.
What is the absolute best present to arrive with for a weekend? I asked around and interestingly found that young people don’t even think about bringing little gifts. At least the many I asked didn’t. Maybe it is because they are so easygoing, can sleep anywhere, and don’t have to distract from their needy behavior with a tin of caviar or a bottle of Sauternes. Or in my case, both.
Candles were mentioned as a good idea and the red currant one from Votivo is so mouthwatering, who wouldn’t adore it? People who loathe scented candles perhaps.
A very dear friend brought me a bottle of Colatura, a salted anchovy sauce from Cetara, bought on a recent trip to Italy. He couldn’t know that of all the normal things one might eat (i.e. not grasshoppers), this would be my stone dead last. A real tongue wiper. So maybe you should steer clear of something so edgy and sophisticated unless you are privy to your host’s neuroses.
If they have a garden, a plant is good but be prepared to plant it yourself, as it may very well just sit there out of sight, out of mind, and out of the earth, till it dies. This is experience talking. I think a homemade jam or chutney is a good idea or a hunk of the best possible Parmesan. Something useful that will last for a bit, unlike something that has to be cooked within hours, like a pound of scallops.
Speaking of scallops…not something I would bring, as I am anti-shellfish altogether and that includes scallops. As a guest, it isn’t rude but in fact thoughtful and politically correct to let your host know if there is something you don’t eat. I live in fear of the clambake or the much un-anticipated “SURPRISE! It’s our Annual Lobster Dinner.” Prime specimens have been flown in, with a fair amount of pomp, from Prince Edward Island. How do you say, “Could I have an egg?” It would never occur to me that a visiting friend wouldn’t like a chocolate tart, so I can well understand the confusion, tinged with annoyance, tinged with who invited her anyway?
My biggest and best weekend tip is to find yourself a little basket or tray and keep all your vitals in it. Then you won’t have to bother anyone with the panicked search for your car keys, mobile phone, Blistex, and glasses. It just takes all that anxiety out of your life. Consolidate your stuff and watch out for your muddy, and carbon, footprints by taking off your shoes and turning off the lights.
The most important thing in my weekend suitcase is a very good book. I am used to giving up on sleep and if I can get down the creaky stairs, not wake up the barky dog, and negotiate with the kettle for a cup of tea at 2:23 a.m., then a good book is my best friend till the morning light. I will cheerfully lie on being asked how I slept, and crow, “Woke up in the fireplace!” which is British for “slept like a log.” And now I ask, how is it that some people can sleep on anything, in any kind of environment? Over the years, I have discovered my preferred way of spending the night is in a room approximating an isolation tank with these qualities:
1. No light, especially a dazzling street light or blinding full moon shining on my head because of the lack of curtains, or worse, a skylight.
2. No noise, especially a ticking clock, dripping tap, or the water heater/air conditioner humming directly under my pillow.
3. And…well, here the tank thing goes south because fresh air is on my list too. So let’s add a window that actually opens (unlike lots of Floridian homes).
4. Oh, and the mattress — I pray for a pillow top in my tank — not for nothing have people made hints about the princess and the pea. But truly I think I manage to keep all these things to myself, which is why I worry about the thought bubbles.
5. And I apologize for all of the above, but people keep asking me back due to when I cook brunch.
Brunch is my ace in the hole. I am up anyway so I can start prepping and creeping around on tiptoes while I still have the kitchen to myself. Since I know I’ll be making brunch, I often bring useful things, like Valrhona chocolate to stuff in the French toast and Maldon Salt to scatter on top with the sautéed apples, mmm… I have mint all over the place in my garden at home so will bring some wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it fresh as…a daisy? Many times, even people with big gardens only have a little pot of mint. They don’t want to plant it out, as otherwise it gets — as mentioned — all over the place. But with the rest of spring and the whole of summer coming up, mine will be kept at bay one big bunch at a time. The mint comes with a couple of jalapeños and a pound of tiny potatoes since the second brunch spectacular is a new potato, jalapeño, and mint frittata.
My very best friend, Linda (who with her husband Brian is my main long-suffering host), has a pretty little hen house and six productive Red Rocket hens so, still-warm eggs can be accessed just across the lawn.
I like these two brunch items since the frittata can be made and held in a very low oven and the French toast can be all assembled and then fried at the last minute. The smell of apples sautéing in butter really can’t be beat and goes a long way to smoothing over a troublesome guest like me.
In the end, being a guest is encapsulated by an anonymous writer who said: Good manners are nothing more than a series of small sacrifices (like having a shallow bath), and minor inconveniences (like not sleeping through the night).
I am in chic company, as I was thrilled to read Karl Lagerfeld’s comment, “I don’t recommend myself as a guest.” One can only imagine.
NEW POTATO, JALAPEÑO AND MINT FRITTATA
• 10 extra-large eggs
• 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) of unsalted butter
• 1 medium yellow onion, diced medium
• 1/2 pound small new potatoes (red or white), sliced very thinly
• 1/4 to 1 seeded jalapeno (depending on your taste and the spiciness of the jalapeno)
• 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves, plus extra for a final scatter
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the middle.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with 1 teaspoon of salt and the freshly ground black pepper and set aside.
3. Melt the butter in a 9-inch sauté pan over medium heat; add the onions and sauté for three minutes. Add the potatoes and the remaining teaspoon of salt and cook, turning occasionally, for ten minutes and then add the jalapeno and cook for another five minutes, or until the potatoes are fully cooked through.
4. Pour the eggs into the pan, scatter on the mint, then shake the pan so the egg settles under the potatoes. Using a heatproof spatula, start pulling the edges of the frittata to the middle and keep tipping the pan to distribute the egg.
5. Cook for four minutes, shake the pan a couple of times to level the eggs, then place the pan in the preheated oven for about six minutes or until the eggs are just delicately set. (Don’t forget to wrap the handle of the pan with a towel when it comes out of the oven.)
6. Let the frittata compose itself for five minutes then slide it onto a warm plate with the help of a spatula and finish with a scattering of salt, another few grinds of black pepper, and just before serving (or it’ll turn black), some more chopped mint.
FRENCH TOAST WITH CHOCOLATE AND SALTED APPLES
Eliminating the sugar in the egg wash and using plain white bread as opposed to panettone or challah, which both contain sugar, allows for the inclusion of semi-sweet chocolate without the whole thing becoming deathly sweet. A loaf with a fairly even crumb is best, so the chocolate doesn’t run out through any holes when it melts.
• 2 extra-large eggs
• 1/4 cup half-and-half
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• Four 1-inch thick slices of day-old white bread, crusts removed
• 4 tablespoons chopped chocolate or Ghirardelli Semi-sweet Chocolate Morsels
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 2 Gala apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 12 wedges each
• 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
• Pinch of Maldon salt
1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, and vanilla. Pour the egg wash into a shallow dish that can hold the 4 slices of bread laid flat.
3. Using a very sharp straight-bladed knife, carefully cut a horizontal pocket in each bread slice, big enough for the chocolate to spread out a bit, and not sit in a big lump. Fill each bread pocket with 1 tablespoon of chocolate and lay the bread slices in the egg wash. Let them soak for a minute, then turn them over and soak the other side. Leave the bread slices in the egg wash while you sauté the apples.
4. Heat a wide pan on medium-high, add the butter and when it has melted add the apples, then sauté until they are translucent and caramelized — approximately 5 minutes. Transfer the pan of apples to the oven while you make the French toast.
5. Heat the oil in a heavy sauté pan and slip in as many bread slices as will fit comfortably. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side to a crisp golden brown, adding more oil if needed. To serve, cut the slices diagonally and set one half on the other so the melted chocolate can be seen. Tip the apples on top and scatter on a few flakes of salt.