(Or, of chickens, whores, and books.)
Loyal readers know that I like to write about my culinary adventures, such as they are. I do not consider myself a gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel confident that I can, occasionally, put together a meal worth eating.
The problem is that I am reluctant to share my creations, as I have one fatal flaw… I will eat, and enjoy, just about anything I make. Even the stinkers. I don’t have the confidence that others would enjoy my (good) dinners as much as I do, nor that I can tell the good ones from the bad ones.
My inclination is towards so-called “comfort foods,” which I define as dishes that rely on rich flavours, simple ingredients, and memories. I don’t do nouvelle cuisine very well at all. My friends in the kitchen tend to be the sunny Mediterranean family of olives, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers. I sometimes swing east and do curries (both Indian and Thai), but they always involve shortcuts, by way of Pataks or Thai Kitchen kits (or the like).
I confess that I have gotten to know my Mediterranean friends rather well over the years, and am quite comfortable playing with them. Most dishes enjoy the added spiritual benefit of blork’s holy trinity: basil, oregano, and parsley. Cumin and cilantro enter the picture when I’m pointing south.
Last night’s concoction was a variation of the “putanesca” theme, which I assembled on-the-fly, not fully aware that I was going there when I started. As you know, “putanesca” pasta sauce takes its name from “putan”, or in French, “putain”. Whore, for you anglos. Generally speaking, a putanesca sauce is a rich tomato sauce built around olives, capers, and garlic. There is no set recipe–it refers to any such sauce using any combination of those basic ingredients plus whatever else one is inclined to throw in. Supposedly, this was the standard “house fare” in the brothels of Italy, back in the day, where men would gather in the evenings, enjoy a mound of pasta a la putanesca, and then set about their jolly business.
Last night I had hoped to rely on what was already on hand, as it was too damn cold to go out for groceries. I dug around in the freezer and pulled out a bag of skinless and boneless chicken thighs–perfect for stews and curries. Then I dug around in the fridge and the pantry to see what else I had.
As the chicken defrosted (using the cold water method–never defrost in the microwave), I spent some time on email and other diversions. After about 20 minutes, I went back to the kitchen and chopped some celery and red onion, which I dropped into a heated pot that had been wetted with olive oil.
As the vegetables sautéd, I smashed three large cloves of garlic and cut the chicken into coarse lumps. I removed the celery and onions from the pot, setting them aside in a bowl, and added a drop more oil to the pot. In went the chicken to brown (or “whiten,” which is perhaps more accurate). As the meat’s color changed, I began casting my spell. First it was a large three-finger clump of dry basil, then two large tosses of dry parsley. I stirred the mix and then threw in the garlic and a spoonful of oregano paste (fresh oregano mixed with oil, then preserved).
The aromas invaded the house and I felt euphoric. I couldn’t stop there, however, so I sprinkled in some hungarian paprika (for sweetness and color), and some pepper flakes (for a touch of heat – in retrospect it was unnecessary). By now the chicken was covered in this gorgeous and aromatic paste of my favorite flavors. Just as it was getting angry, I threw in half a can of diced tomatoes to quell the rebellion. I gently mixed the whole thing and then reduced the heat.
It smelled lovely, but something was missing. At this point I still hadn’t defined what I was making. I glanced at the collection of thumbnail-sized Taschen books of erotic art that I had bought earlier in the evening and thought of old-time whorehouses. Putanesca! But I was out of olives and capers.
With the heat on minimum, I threw on my coat and ran to the depanneur down the street. I bought a bottle of red wine and a can of black olives (which is the closest they had to real olives). Back home, I rinsed the brine off a few of the olives (since they were not premium, I decided to use them sparingly), and found half a jar of marinated artichokes in the fridge. I chopped up both and folded them into the mix on the stove. Then I gave it a dash of salt, a scritch or two of black pepper, and a couple of healthy glugs of red wine. Cover, and simmer for an hour, adding an inch or two of tubed tomato paste half way through.
In my pantry’s “pasta pile” I found some flat egg noodles. I cooked them, and laid a handful out in a pasta bowl. I spooned on the putanesca poulet à la blork. I carried this to the dining room and ate it while reading Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain, by Jeffrey Moore, which is set in my former neighbourhood on the Main. As I ate I read lines like “I surreptitiously watched her dress, admiring her willowy, callipygian form” and “She walked towards me, smoothing out her skirt with empurpled fingertips.” Both would have been over-the-top were it not for the book’s overall acerbic wit and unrelenting hilarious non-sequiters.
I put the book down, due to overstimulation. It was either stop eating or stop reading, and I knew the book wouldn’t get cold. As I contemplated and savoured my little creation, turned a deep, dark red from slow simmering, I wondered if this was a meal I would serve to a date–someone who’s heart I wanted to capture. I know with certainty it would be popular with big hairy-armed lugs named Luigi, who would shovel it in gleefully before mounting the stairs on their way to mounting Gina or Antoinetta, but would someone with a refined palate approve? I don’t know, dear readers. What do you think?