Monday, December 14, 2009

Solstice Solace: Autumn Vegetable, Chicken and Sausage Hot Pot

At Bide-A-Wee as we enter solstice week the sun touches the distant southwest hilltops by a quarter past four in the afternoon. We take a walk around our own hilltop circuit to catch the last of the daylight. We turn to take in the whole horizon, we peer down into the shadowed, snowy valleys, as if to fix it all in memory, to capture it in case this sunset should fail to resolve itself, come morning, into the dawn of another day, as if this fading glow might be the last of light to grace the world--the immemorial fear of northern peoples facing down the shortest days, the longest nights.

The sunsets have been beautiful, but we can't look at them without a sense of longing, almost of regret. You almost want to reach out and try to pull it back, though the descending sun now seems a universe away. You want to implore, with Faustian gravitas: "Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!"

Good luck with that. We watch the light fade, and feel with its departure a deepening chill. We finish our walk and crunch and squeak down the snow-covered gravel driveway. By five o'clock it is completely dark, and we are in for the night.

In places where the winter nights are this long, or longer, and vodka is cheap, you can see how folks get into trouble. Rather than pouring out tumblers of cheap hootch, we go through our evening rituals: bringing in wood and stoking the fire in the Haggis, replacing and lighting of candles, fluffing up of dog bed, general tidying (in a 12-by-16-foot cabin everything must have a place), assembling of reading material (and scrounging of reading glasses), tuning in the radio to WOJB--"Woodland Community Radio, 88.9"--from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in Reserve, Wisconsin.

And of course, dinner preparation. In general we try to keep our Bide-A-Wee cooking simple, ever so much moreso in winter. With a pot gently simmering on the woodstove we can sit down with a drink (make mine Balvenie Double-Wood), a glass of wine, and eat when we and the pot agree we're ready. I've written about a Bide-A-Wee hot pot dinner before, and I do so again here without shame. It's the sort of simple, satisfying food that really highlights the flavors of local produce--sweet onions, carrots, leek, potato, cabbage, parsnips, turnips. The fact that it's December, not late February, is relevant: we haven't been eating roots and cabbage for three months straight; we can still regard them as "fresh vegetables."

Fresh vegetables, each with a story: It occured to me as we peeled and washed and cut up the vegetables for this hot pot that I could connect people and places with every one of them. The turnips were those I rescued from the garden just before the Big Freeze, carrots and leeks garden produce, too; the cabbage, onions, and parsnips I purchased from market vendors, the families of Va Vang and Tim Vang, specifically, at our last markets in November. Peeling a parsnip, I recall the last cold, wet hour of our Thanksgiving market; the rain swept in to erase our
Real Bread sign, bringing an emphatic close to the 2009 season, but we were cheered by the comradeship of the vendors who stuck it out, the devotion of the customers who came out--even on foot, even on bikes!--in such dismal weather for one last market shopping.

And in the midst of making that meaningful mise en place, laying out that comfortingly monotone still life, I was reminded that the pleasures of cooking, especially cooking with local ingredients, go far beyond the satisfaction of eating good food. Eating, well, it's eating: you make food, you eat it, you're done. You extend the pleasure, and the meaningfulness, when you take time to think about your meal, to grow your own food or buy it from people you know (or forage, catch, or shoot it...), when you prepare it carefully, appreciatively, and share it at table with others who see as much in it as you do.

Then some humble roots and simple meats simmered together become all you might desire, a steamy feast, homely but delicious.

Hot pot, huo guo, pot au feu, boiled dinner. Grilling over an open flame may have been the first form of cooking; once mankind got a pot, the water-cooked meal probably superceded it in popularity. The simplest way to make a meal like this is to just put all your ingredients in a pot of water, bring it to a boil, simmer it until it's done. In this case I rendered the fat from some home-smoked bacon rind, browned the chicken and sausage to give it a little more depth of flavor, and added the vegetables in two stages, according to how long they needed to cook.

Leftovers can be served cold with a vinaigrette dressing, the pot au feu salad, a French classic. If you chop the leftovers, add some well-reduced chicken stock, and pour it all into a mold, you get an aspic-bound terrine, quite elegant as a first course with a dab of dijon mustard, some cornichons and crusty bread. We turned our leftovers into soup, chopping the leftover meat and vegetables into bite-sized pieces, adding a bit of stock and a few more veg; finish with a slug of red wine and a tablespoon of butter. You won't feel like you're eating leftovers.

Autumn Vegetable, Chicken and Sausage Hot Pot
Serves three, or two with lots of leftovers--it just happened we had three knockwurst in the freezer, and the packet of chicken thighs contained three. Vary the vegetables according to what you have, adding them to the pot according to their respective cooking times--squash, rutabagas, kholrabi, chard, other cooking greens, etc.

A couple of pieces of good bacon rind or a slice of bacon, optional, but highly recommended
3 chicken thighs (we like Kadejan, available at most co-ops here)
3 sausages, like knockwurst or bratwurst
1 parsnip, peeled, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 medium carrot, peeled or scrubbed, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 small leek, white and light green part, cleaned, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 small onions, peeled, halved through the root end so they stay together
1/4 of a smallish green cabbage
2 small potatoes, peeled or scrubbed, as you prefer
1 large clove garlic
1 small turnip, peeled and quartered
1 small dried or fresh chili, seeds removed, optional
a couple sprigs fresh thyme or a pinch dried

salt and pepper

In a large dutch oven slowly render the bacon fat from the rind or the bacon slice--if you don't use bacon or rind, just put a little oil or butter in the pot. Salt the chicken on both sides, and brown it alongside the bacon, starting starting skin side down. Brown the sausages, too; they shouldn't take quite as long as the chicken.

Add four cups of water to the dutch oven, along with the carrot, leek, onions, garlic, thyme and chili if desired. Bring to a boil and simmer very gently for 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, turnip, and cabbage, and simmer for another 30 minutes, at least.

As long as you keep it at a bare simmer--le fait frémir, as the French say, make it shiver--it's pretty hard to overcook it. Before serving taste for salt. Serve with dijon mustard, crusty bread or croutons, some cornichons or a freshly made vinaigrette, or all of the above, as you prefer.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

No comments: