Tuesday, January 23, 2007


There was a half-filled container of very flat champagne in my freezer. It was dry and crisp out of the bottle on a Saturday night, but we have a 16 month old child. We get tired early and (heaven forbid) there is sometimes leftover champagne.

I put it into the freezer for a future dish, it could serve as a marinade or liven up a sauce. It kept company for with the back of an once-butterflied chicken, a few uneaten chicken legs from that same entrée, and some leftover sauce from a Moroccan dish (butter, cinnamon, cayenne, cilantro) which eventually was reduced and used to fry potatoes.

The very young Matthew decided that my homemade baby food is acceptable, but not as much fun as real, grown-up food with salt and spices. So be it. Sunday is going to be a cooking day, at least two dishes. Perhaps three. Thursday evening was a wild and capricious spree at the local vegetable market (c'mon, you've gotta find fun where you can), it’s winter and we need something warm and filling that survives freezing and remains nutritious and tasty for hungry parents or baby.

It all starts on Saturday night, Abby is on the laptop creating lesson plans and watching DVDs of Futurama. Matthew's asleep after little protest. I'm in the kitchen listening to mp3s of a BBC program about Bowie in his German stage, and Christopher Lee reading ‘The Exorcist’ (which works far better than you’d think). 12 cups of Brita water go into the heavy stockpot with the built in strainer along with two onions chopped into quarters, 3 cloves of garlic sliced thin, salt and pepper, 7 or 8 cloves.

I rinse the frost off the chicken back and legs, add a few carrots cut on the bias and a parsnip cut into cubes. Turn on the heat, cover, let steep for a few hours. When it tastes like a clove-ridden chicken stock, it goes in the fridge and I go to bed.

Sunday morning. Abby is off to teach people how to knit, I'm keeping up a lively dialogue with Matthew in his high chair while chopping vegetables. It's going to be a roasted vegetable lentil soup. Peppers, plum tomatoes, an eggplant, onions and garlic and yellow zucchini are quartered, drizzled with olive oil and put into the oven at 450 degrees or so. They sizzle and slowly caramelize as I take last night’s chicken stock out of the fridge. The excess fat has hardened and floated to the top, I remove it and lift the strainer. The solids to go recycling, the stock goes into knockoff tupperware and gets taken to the floor freezer downstairs.

While placing the stock, I look for inspiration. I find a solitary chicken breast and a few hot sausages looking forlorn in Ziploc. I'm convinced that they really must find a higher purpose.

I take them upstairs and drop them into a large stainless steel slow cooker. Now I’m committed. I root around the upstairs freezer and find some boneless chicken thighs. I rinse the frost off of three of them and chop roughly. There's a bag of new potatoes at the back of the fridge, I wash 7 or 8. They all go in the cooker along with carrots sliced on the bias, a few onions, the hot sausages (cut paper thin) and a yellow pepper that didn’t make it into the lentil prep. The last item is the frozen champagne, it should make a tasty sauce.

It needs something green and gets green beans from the freezer. Fresh would be better but we can’t have everything. Parsley (since there’s always parsley in the fridge) can be dropped in at the end, maybe with some chopped shallots, another burst of green to offset the yellow and orange of the peppers and carrots. I don’t add any oil since the sausages should be fatty enough to provide lots of flavour and the champagne should mellow and bring the flavours together.

Spices? Paprika. I had been thinking that the chicken, sausage, peppers and potatoes was sort of a Giambotte, but paprika will turn it into some kind of paprikash, which may or may not work with the ingredients; I remember the sausages were tasty, I don’t remember if they’d go with paprika. It might just taste like something designed to clear out the freezer. Or the slow cooking could steep all of the flavours into something new. I turn on the heat and forget about it for a few hours.

When the vegetables in the oven smell like they’re on just the right side of burnt I pull them out. They’ve browned but not blackened, the onions and garlic turned gold. I find another stock pot, add 15 or 16 cups of water and everything goes in except for the eggplant (which has to cool and have the pulp scraped from the black skin). The pot goes onto a hot burner, the water darkens around the rising sweet scent.

The young master requires lunch. I thaw a cube of Matthew's baby food (beef, zucchini and basil cooked together and run through a blender) and toss it with tiny pasta shells and a grind of black pepper. He finds the arrangement satisfactory, topping it off with the customary sippy-cup of milk. He munches on Arrowroots while I scrape the eggplant pulp and add it to the simmering stock.

Incidentally, I’m not listening to 'The Exorcist' at this point. I don’t think Matthew would understand a word of it, but anything that stuck around to come out in his first few conversations would be difficult to explain at a later date. And what toddler really needs to know the Roman rite of Exorcism or the works of Willam Peter Blatty?

Matthew seems quite content in his high chair with a board book (Go, Dog. Go!), so I start peeling potatoes. I’m going to get a caramelized leek and onion and potato soup out of today as well.

This one is the easiest. 5 large potatoes, cubed. One bunch of leeks, split and cleaned carefully. One fat cooking onion. Another stockpot, another 12 cups of water and it all cooks together at a low boil for 40 minutes or so.

On the next burner, the roasted vegetables have softened. I add cumin and cinnamon, more olive oil. I use a vegetable peeler and add long strips of carrots and parsnips which soften quickly in the hot stock.

I check out the slow cooker. The paprikash doesn’t look like a meal yet, it’s just thawing chicken and sausage and potatoes. But the onion and carrot seem to be getting along with the champagne, there’s a mild boozy scent that works with the paprika quite well and warm, sweet garlic steams out of the sausage. There’s no rush. There are literally hours to go.

The potatoes have softened and the stock tastes like leek and potato, simple and flavourful. I move it to the back burner and check out the other pot of roasted vegetables, using a hand blender to slowly puree the contents. In a few minutes the soup is thick and rich. It goes in the fridge to wait.

I drop a few tablespoons of unsalted butter into a hot frying pan and listen to it bubble as I mince onions, taking the pan off the burner just as it browns. This is a mistake, I wasn’t trying to brown the butter. In fact, the pan is so hot that I drop on the onion and it sizzles instantly. A few seconds later it’s a rich darkening brown. Lesson learned - you can quickly caramelize onions with brown butter that’s inches away from being burnt.

I let the onion cook in the butter at a lower heat until it looks deep brown and smells sweet. I take the potato leek stock out of the fridge, add the caramelized onion and puree it all together, adding a cup of milk. More pepper, a bit of nutmeg. There. Now it’s soup.

I let a pot of water boil and toss in 2 cups of brown lentils. They cook to al dente quickly (can you use al dente as applied to beans? I’m just trying to convey the fact that they’ve got a very slight chew, rather than turning to mush) and go into the pureed roasted vegetable. The second soup is done.

Both soups go into the fridge and I forget about them.

The slow cooker works on the paprikash, I take off the lid and turn up the heat. When Abby calls to say she’s on her way home, I put Matthew to bed, he casually pulls the blanet over his shoulder to say ‘that will be all’ before snoring. The paprikash bubbles and reduces, filling the house with onion and paprika. I add parsely and shallots before serving. It doesn’t taste like 5 different foodstuffs, it tastes like a meal.

Something has been accomplished. There are meals that will last for more than a week, stock for another wave of cooking. We can all eat the same dish and we’re not living on takeout and frozen pizza.

On a cold night in January it is enough.


Anonymous said...

Gee whiz, I said T. and I would have dinner there and you could cook - was it really necessary to write a whole entry to tempt us?

And, have I mentioned that your writing style (esp. in this post) reminds me of Joe Fiorito?

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