Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Last Friday night, I was in no mood to entertain. My husband had gotten up that morning at some un-Godly hour to fly out of town. My kids had final exams starting the following Monday, so I knew that in between a baseball game and a bat mitzvah, most of the weekend was going to be spent studying geography with my younger son, who was heading into a three-part test called the “Nifty Fifty.”
The "Nifty Fifty" requires knowing a whole mess of information: All the states and capitals, the major rivers and lakes, a couple of canyons, a few national parks, many bays, two volcanoes, various domestic mountain ranges and the difference between a strait and an isthmus. My younger son didn't just have to know what these things were---he had to identify them on a map, which meant that I had to be able to find them too, even though by the time I reached third grade, New Jersey public schools had stopped teaching geography and until recently, I barely knew the difference between Wisconsin and Wyoming.
By the middle of Friday afternoon, I was so beat I just wanted to put my kids to bed as soon as they got off the bus. But then my younger son walked in the door, dropped his backpack and excitedly asked me if three of his closest friends could come over and watch a hockey game. Actually, what he really said was that he had already invited his three friends over, okay Mom? I hemmed and hawed, and told him he could call the kids and invite them over but I didn't really want them to come. Then, I left him with our housekeeper, hoping that he would not be able to find his school directory and would just give up, eat a banana and check his email.
I drove into town to buy a dress on sale for the bat mitzvah we were going to Saturday night. (Yes, I had energy for that, but no energy to encourage my child to bond with his friends.)
As I was pulling up in front of the store, my younger son's friend's mother called. I like this woman a lot: She is always doing something fun: Playing ice hockey, cooking steak, going to an art exhibit. But I didn't want to talk to her. I watched my cell phone ring. Finally, I picked up. Could her son come over and watch the game? The Flyers were playing the Blackhawks at 8. I looked at my watch. It was 4 p.m. Hockey games last at least an hour and a half. When were these kids going to come and when were they going to leave? My husband was coming home late, my older son would be upstairs studying and doing God-knows-what on his laptop, so I was headed into a five-hour night, maybe six, keeping little boys occupied. I wanted to think about it but this Mom said she kind of had to make a decision right now because she was heading into the city to see "Red," the Broadway show about Mark Rothko.
How lovely for her.
I was fine with disappointing my own little boy but disappointing hers seemed pretty cruel. So even though every fiber of my body just wanted to gulp down a glass of white wine and collapse, I said okay, parked the car, went into the store and found a dress that had been marked down twice---the savings were almost twice the price of the dress! Maybe there was a God. I bought the dress, drove home and prayed for strength.
My younger son greeted me in the garage and said that two of the three friends he had invited were on the way over; the third was coming over next Friday. Three nine-year old boys on one Friday night? I did not do a little dance. I did not want to persuade them to put their napkins in their laps and then play a rousing game of Scrabble. I just wanted them to eat their pizza quickly and go watch TV in the basement. But I had already defrosted chicken breasts and had been looking forward to making a recipe I found in Darina Allen's book Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best--Over 700 Recipes Show You Why.
A word about this book: It is awesome. I read about it in the New York Times a few weeks ago and was intrigued. Allen is a famous Irish chef and TV host who runs the Ballymaloe cooking school in County Cork, Ireland. Her classes involves cooking, killing chickens, milking cows and other "forgotten arts." Her husband was convicted of possessing child pornography, and was nudged out of running her business, yet here she was, soldiering on, selling books and cheerfully teaching people how to cook with modest ingredients and recipes from her neighbors and relatives. I wanted to help her out, and immediately made the "Forager's Soup," rationalizing that if it was good, I would buy the book. The soup was a bit rich but once I cut the cream with an extra cup of chicken broth, it was divine. (There was a lot left over and I promised some to my mother and neighbor but unfortunately for them, I ate it all.)
Anyway, my Friday night plan was to make Darina Allen's chicken breasts with mushrooms and ginger, which involved first soaking the chicken breasts in whole milk, sauteeing shallots and mushrooms in butter and peeling fresh ginger. It would probably taste great but it would be a big ol' waste o' time if the little kids weren't going to eat it.
Reader, they ate it. It was delicious. (You could argue that anything that calls for butter, olive oil, heavy cream and whole milk is bound to be delicious. And you could also argue that three nine-year old boys will eat just about anything after playing hockey on a driveway and football in a basement) Still, I was feeling very proud of myself---I had a bunch of kids over and didn't serve them junk food! While the boys were making noise and kind of, sort of watching the hockey game, I read Allen's book.
Dare I say it: It was better than MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. Allen's tone is so practical and convincing, and she writes so beautifully, with lovely descriptions of the lush Irish countryside and beautiful butter cookies, that by the end of the evening, I was thinking about how we would build a chicken coop, clean the hen house and raise our own duck eggs. Allen runs an organic farm as part of her cooking school and she tells you how to raise chicks, care for a "broody hen," bone a bird, gut a goose and store your poultry feed (use a galvanized pail). She argues for dust baths for hens (they need them to keep away mites) and against pasteurized milk. She describes the difference between curds and whey (apparently milk coagulates during the cheese-making process and "curds" are the solids and "whey" is the liquid.) She also tells you how to "finish off a cow" (let it graze on an old pasture.)
A couple of her recipes made me skittish: I had never put it together that "suckling pig" meant eating a baby pig that probably had nursed from its mother that morning and have absolutely no intention of shooting a woodcock and then roasting its brains (she includes a photo of an engraved shotgun). I held my breath when she described how to skin a rabbit or hare. And I pity her grandchildren, whom she calls "lily-livered" because they grimace when she eats pig's head (brawn) and pig's feet (trotters). But it all sounds perfectly doable, as long as you have the right weapons. Her philosophy is use it all and don't be afraid to add a little fat. I was glad to learn that suet is the fat that protects the beef kidney; the recipes for beef cheeks, beef heart and toast with beef drippings do sound delicious.
This is the kind of book that makes you feel dreamy but also leads you to believe that there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't be making your own goat cheese and Mummy's brown soda bread with buttermilk right this minute. By the end of the evening, I was feeling inadequate that I had never even tasted unpasteurized (raw) milk. And if all you want to do is make junket, cottage cheese or cream cheese, Darina Allen has recipes that require fewer than five ingredients. All you have to do is find non-genetically modified rennet---the enzyme in calf's milk that causes mother's milk to separate into curds and whey. (My mother insists she fed me junket all the time as a kid, which is a lovely thought, and explains my addiction to rice pudding.)
It is safe to say that I kept my sanity last Friday night by diving into a new, old-fashioned book, written by the wife of a probable pedophile, that described a way of living that is totally foreign to me. The only thing we are growing in our "garden" is parsley and tomatoes. The rabbits will make sure the tomatoes never grow to adulthood, and I have no intention of hunting down the rabbits. We have basil growing on the patio but that's because I bought a mature plant from Shop Rite. But this book makes living off the land and the pursuit of thrift in Ireland sound appealing and luxurious, and on a warm spring evening in suburban New Jersey, Darina Allen took me to a happy place.
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup diced onion
1-2 medium potatoes, diced
4 cups chicken soup, warmed
2 cups "creamy milk" (This is 1/2 cup heavy cream plus 1 1/2 cups whole milk, mixed together and heated to boiling point.)
9 ounces chopped greens (I used mixed salad greens and parsley. You could also forage for young dandelions, sorrel, nettles, wild garlic, nasturtium leaves, poppy leaves, wild arugula and watercress.)
extra virgin oil
3-4 ounces turkey bacon, diced
Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pan. When it foams, add the diced onion and potatoes until well-coated. Sprinkle with salt and ground pepper. Cover with a piece of wax paper to trap in the steam,and cover with saucepan lid, and cook over low heat for ten minutes until the vegetables are almost soft. Throw out the wax paper. Add the hot chicken stock and boiling creamy milk. Add the greens and boil uncovered for 2-3 minutes until the greens are just cooked. Put the soup in a blender and season to taste.
Heat a little oil in a frying pan. Add the turkey bacon and cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Drain bacon on a paper towel and then add to soup.
This soup gets better with time so save some for tomorrow and the next day.
CHICKEN BREASTS WITH MUSHROOMS AND GINGER
4 boneless chicken breasts
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2/3 cup chicken stock
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Soak chicken breasts in milk for at least an hour. Dry chicken breasts with paper towel, season with salt and pepper.
Heat butter in wide frying pan until it foams. Put chicken breasts in and turn in the butter but do not brown. Cover with a round piece of wax paper, and place lid on pan. Cook over low heat for 5-7 minutes, until chicken is just barely cooked.
Meanwhile, cook shallots in pan with a little butter. Remove to plate. Raise heat, add a little olive oil and the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove from pan and add to onions.
When chicken breasts are cooked, remove to plate. Add chicken stock, cream and ginger to pan. Bring to a boil. Ad the chicken and onion/mushroom mixture back to the pan, add the chopped parsley and let simmer for 1-2 minutes. Season to taste.
Cut the chicken breasts into narrow strips (easier for kids to eat).