Monday, November 17, 2014
Wet Behind the Ears
I arrived in France thirty years ago, the decision to leave one life behind and begin a new one impulsive, impetuous. Unprepared, my ideas of Paris, of the country and the culture, were formulated from images in a tattered old high school French textbook, an American fantasy of a culture idealized, idolized. I was wet behind the ears.
French food, I imagined, was refined, fancy and fussy, too expensive for the likes of me. High end dining, white tablecloths and starched waiters serving tiny portions elegantly dressed upon the plate; or pristine shops serving up creamy white rounds of cheese or tender slices of meat the color of rubies next to the tiny ceramic forms filled with gratinéed scallops or mousse de foie gras, and golden, crispy-skinned roasted chickens, only for the privileged. And pastry shops! Layer upon delicate layer of flakey pastry, unctuous creams, clouds of meringue, paper-thin slices of fruit. Complicated, sophisticated, rich.
But once I got my feet wet, I saw the fundamentally frugal, humble homey cuisine of the French, the hearty stews and simple desserts. And I finally felt at home.
The weather outside is frightful… They talk about April showers but no one mentions November storms. March might come in like a lion but November comes in like a wet dog. Autumn arrives on a blast of cold air, ushered in with rain and smoky skies the color of tarnished silver. Rooms are dim, radiators click on, sweaters and wooly socks are dug out of drawers and cupboards and slipped on, and we begin yearning for soup.
Blustery, sodden days, wet, wet and more wet, seasonal dishes heavy with potatoes, sweet with pumpkin, dripping with rich sauces are needed to ward off the chill, heat up our bodies and fire up our souls. Stew pots simmering, soups in the making, bubbling up to leave wet splotches on the stovetop, steaming up windows drizzling trickles of condensation.
As the month inches along and the holidays approach, the dazzling glow of sunshine, bright fall days, are interspersed with the gray and damp. We bundle up in gaily colored sweaters to protect ourselves against the joyful, dizzy drop of temperatures as we head outside to enjoy the crunch of the golden and red foliage underfoot quickly, quickly before it melts into matted, sticky swathes of dead leaves lying like a wet, old forgotten scarf in the gutter and a disagreeable wet rawness seeps in underneath our clothes, into our homes, chilling us to the bone.
I warm my hands over the steam coming up from a saucepan, lean into the heat coming from the oven. Scents of lamb and carrots intermingle with cinnamon and chocolate; my counter is piled high with citrus and we jostle for the first bite of the bakery-warm baguette. There is some compensation for these wet, wet autumn days.
Wet Your Whistle
I don't know from a wet or dry martini; I've never considered whether a dry rub or a wet marinade is the better thing, thinking, as I do, that both are delicious and have their place in my kitchen. Wet curry or dry? Is the opposite of a dry wine a wet wine? The Great Northwest is wet, the Middle East is dry. But really, all I consider is risotto and sometimes rice pudding.
Wet or dry? Tender or al dente? Creamy or sticky? Wet or dry.
Definitely wet. I learned the art of risotto from Nonna Anna, our neighbor, our sons' adopted grandmother, while living in Italy. She cooked for an army, her brood of sons and daughters, grandkids and us and we were so lucky to join them for family meals. I watched her every movement carefully, I observed her choice of ingredients, creating scrumptious meals out of so little. And her risotto. Stirred and stirred, simmered until smooth and creamy, the grains of rice meltingly tender, the whole just wet enough until velvety and lush.
I learned my lesson and adapted it to my husband's favorite treat, his childhood comfort food, riz au lait. The French version of simple, wholesome rice pudding. Stir and stir making sure the rice, which has been abundantly rinsed (wet rice seems to stick to everything, picking grains off of my fingers, grains sticking to my skin) and pre-boiled for three minutes, is wetter than wet, stir and stir until the milk has been absorbed, or just about, the rice smooth and delicate with barely a bite. Nursery food with body.
W(het) your appetite.
Mad as a Wet Hen
Wet ingredients whisked into dry; dry ingredients folded into wet. Is meringue considered wet? Green, leafy vegetables? I don't always suffer the patience it requires and end up with lumps or worse, the makings of a cake splattered across the counter, spattered up the wall, leaving muddy splotches on the paper which is not quite as washable as they claim.
Patience has never been my strong suit. When I am in the mood to bake but not quite, when my son requests a dessert or a treat to share with his friends or fulfill his own craving, I turn to a faithful, foolproof recipe for a marvelous one-bowl cake. One bowl. But careful, careful wet to be stirred into dry. All the wet goes into a measuring cup, all the dry in a bowl and if I work too quickly… well, you know what happens.
A wet meal. Hot chicken soup (with a tender matzo ball or three) or a scalding cup of tea with dry toast, meals for the sick. Or comfort food. A bowl of oatmeal wet with milk and a pat of butter melting into a wet puddle of gold in the center of the heap of steaming oatmeal. Spaghetti tossed with lots of red sauce, too much red sauce, wet with sauce, enough sauce left in the bowl to dunk in chunks of bread, sopping up the wet.
I made and served this luscious, flavorful chicken dish for my wedding lunch, so it has a very special place in my repertoire above and beyond the fact that it is easy to make and so delicious, a dish that pleases everyone. The (wet) marinade – leaving the chicken overnight in lemon juice – not only infuses the meat with a beautiful yet delicate citrus flavor but produces super tender chicken.
JAMIE'S LEMON CHICKEN
This recipe can easily be doubled – but only fill up your baking dish with enough chicken stock to come not more than halfway up your chicken pieces.
1 chicken, 2 ½ lbs (1 kg), cut into pieces or the equivalent in favorite pieces
1 cup (250 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup (125 g) or a bit less flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable oil for frying
1 Tbs grated lemon zest
1/8 cup/1 Tbs light brown sugar
¼ cup (60 ml) chicken stock
1 lemon, sliced paper thin
Clean the chicken pieces and dab them dry with paper towels. Place them with the freshly squeezed lemon juice in a bowl or recipient just large enough to hold them comfortably. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and put them in the refrigerator to marinate overnight, turning occasionally.
Drain the chicken pieces well. Put the flour, salt, pepper and paprika in a large bowl or platter and blend thoroughly. Roll each chicken piece in the mixture until well coated. Or, alternately, you can fill a large plastic bag with the flour mixture and, working only a couple of pieces of chicken at a time, shake to coat completely. Shake off excess flour and put aside on a clean, dry plate.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan or heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. (As I fried my chicken in 2 batches, I heated half the oil at a time.) When the oil is very hot, fry the chicken pieces, a few at a time so as not to overcrowd, on all sides, until well browned and crispy. This may take up to 10 minutes per batch.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Arrange the browned chicken pieces in a single layer in a large, shallow baking dish or pan (I prefer glass or terra cotta). Pour the chicken stock around the pieces; the stock should come not more than halfway up the sides of the chicken pieces. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice into the stock (just one good squeeze to add a bit more lemon flavor). Sprinkle the chicken pieces evenly with the brown sugar and the lemon zest. Set a thin slice of lemon on each piece of chicken. Bake for 45 – 50 minutes until cooked through and tender.