Sunday, June 19, 2011
"The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. "
— Julia Child
There was a time not so long ago when, if I didn't feel like cooking, I would drive a good distance from our house in Savannah to The Fresh Market to pick up dinner. On those evenings, I would grab a basket, walk straight past the wooden tables displaying woven wicker crates bursting with gigantic blush pink apples, baby spinach and arugula. I would shoot past the acrylic, lift-top candy bins and the international chocolate shelf, the artisinal cheese display, the barrels of aromatic coffee beans and the nut grinding station, then weave my way through the biscotti and imported "biscuits" aisle, which brought me to the gourmet deli section. And that's when I would smell it. What I had come for. The rotisserie chicken.
Oh, how I miss that rotisserie chicken: White Wine Herb, Lemon Rosemary, Butter Garlic, Honey and Thyme or Natural (which, they should call "elegantly simple", for that is indeed what it is.) I loved to watch them turning ever- so-slowly on their sabers, the top one dripping it's flavorful cooking juices onto the one below, creating a cascade of savory essence, basting, coating, dripping until each golden droplet suspended and finally splattered and sizzled into the pan below. Watching this process, I theorized that the chicken on the very bottom must be the most flavorful and tender, as it had received all of the drippings from the rungs above. On those occasions when I timed it right and could pick my own chicken right off the rotisserie, that's the one I chose. My piping hot, herb-encrusted chicken nestled inside the foil-insulated bag in my basket, I would wind my way back through the vegetables and fruits (ok, and maybe the international chocolates) to complete my dinner. Those were the days.
In Senegal, I usually dig a chicken out of the freezer chest at our local grocery and dump it into an insulated bag (to keep it cold this time) as quickly as possible. Those suckers are really, really cold. And heavy. Then I met a Senegalese man who raises and sells organic chickens. I ordered one to be delivered the day I was having a dinner party. I would be making Zuni Cafe's famous Roasted Chicken and Bread Salad for one of Richard's new clients and his wife.
On the morning of the party, I was on a roll--I had decided that this time, I was not going to let myself get stressed out. Instead I would be organized, ready, cool and calm. I would have dinner prepared, the table set, my kids bathed, the animals fed and the kitchen cleaned, leaving myself enough time to actually shower and have a much-deserved glass of wine well in advance of our guests arrival at 7:30.
All was going well. I had the bread salad ready at 2:00, or as ready as possible, as the final step is to pour the hot pan drippings over the cubed and grilled bread chunks and then toss with arugula. I had the table set, dessert made, the wine chilling, the green beans trimmed and the orange gremolata ready to pour over the beans once they were cooked. All I needed was the chicken. At 4:00, just as I was putting Sunny and Jamie in the bath, I heard the clip-clop of a horse cart pull up outside. Yes, the chicken. I ran and opened up the gate and there indeed was my organic chicken man, right on time.
He pulled an old rice bag from the back of his cart and reached inside, pulling out a fully-feathered, just killed bird.
"No, no, no", I said, shaking my head. "There must be some mistake. The chicken I ordered is plucked, cleaned and has no head or feet," and, I thought to myself, doesn't look like Ginger the Hen in "Chicken Run" which I had unfortunately watched with my kids the day before.
He laughed and tried to hand me the chicken, but I backed away. "Madame," he said, "you ordered a chicken and that is what I have brought you. You're lucky I killed it for you." With that, he carefully placed the chicken at my feet, got back in his cart and clopped away. I ran after him, hauling the chicken along by the feet, shouting, "but how do I get the feathers off?!! Wait!! Don't go!!"
In situations like this one, (i.e. an entire three pound chicken that needed to be de-headed, de-clawed, plucked, "voided", washed, prepared and roasted in two and a half hours), I have been known to succumb to something akin to Tourette's Syndrome. Sunny and Jamie ran outside with towels on to see why Mommy was standing in the courtyard shouting obscenities, holding a dead chicken by the neck.
"Get your father on the phone, now! . . . Please."
As I tried not to hyperventilate, I heard Sunny, who loves nothing more than to push the #1 button on my cellphone to call her Papa, leaving Richard a message:
"Papa, it's me, Sunny. You better get home soon. Mama's cursing at a chicken. She used the really bad word."
I frantically Googled "how to pluck a chicken". A surprising number of results popped up. I decided to skip the Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church video on YouTube entitled "Ms. Dudley Shows How to Pluck the Chicken" because it was seven minutes long and I didn't have seven minutes. I did however bookmark it for later viewing. Scrolling down, I learned fairly quickly that one only need place the chicken in a pot of boiling water and let it sit until the feathers loosened and could be easily removed.
While the chicken sat in it's pre-pluming bath, I thought it would be a good idea to sample the wine. Two glasses later, I reached into the pot, pulled out the chicken and realized it would be easier if I got the neck/head and feet off first. I somehow managed to do this rather smoothly, finding the joints easily. That accomplished, I took a deep breath, reached into the pot (which had now cooled slightly) and began ripping feathers out. The downy ones came out quite easily, but the wing feathers were more stubborn, so I asked Jamie to please find my eyebrow tweezers. By now, our three cats had become very interested in what I was doing and had climbed onto the counter and were pacing like circus tigers. Tweezers in hand, I began to tug at the more difficult quills. As my hands were wet, I was covered in chicken feathers which were plastering themselves all the way up my arm. Sunny had pulled up a stool next to me and was cheering me on. "You're doing a great job Mom." She kept asking me if I didn't want another glass of wine.
At 6:00, the chicken was naked as a . . . well, you know, and I braced myself for removing the innards. I got a scrap bowl out, cut the skin around the cavity and reached in. I don't know that I could identify what I pulled out, but I placed it all in the bowl to cook later for the cats. I scrubbed my hands, arms and the chicken clean, inside and out, and placed it in a roasting dish. It looked just like it was supposed to! I felt triumphant, giddy, plucky even!
Just as I was popping my beautifully dressed and tressed chicken into the oven, one of the cats snatched the entrails out the bowl and trailed them across the counter, down the hallway and up onto Sunny's bed where she proceeded to gnaw on them ferociously and howl at me viciously if I tried to get near her. The resulting mess topped my 'grossest thing ever' list, Sunny's bed had to be changed and Sunny herself needed lots of comforting. She feared that her favorite Hello Kitty sheet (ironic, don't you think?) would never be the same. And, I found, I needed another sip of wine.
Twenty minutes later, I had just enough time to wash my face, brush my teeth and throw on a dress and some lipstick. My cheeks already had that healthy 'just plucked a chicken in record time while downing a bottle of wine' adrenaline glow, so I skipped the blush. The chicken was starting to smell pretty good and, although the recipe doesn't call for it, I basted it with the remainder of the wine bottle I had so thoroughly sampled. When Richard arrived with our guests, who I was meeting for the first time, I wanted to drag him into a corner and tell him everything that happened, but I would have to save it for later.
Somehow, I got dinner on the table. I nervously waited as our guests took their first bites. No one said anything, so I quickly scooped up a forkfull of chicken and bread salad and was relieved that it had turned out well, really well. The woman turned to me and said, "this chicken is absolutely delicious. Did you use white wine?"
You could say that.
Actually, it was excellent, which is why I'm sharing the recipe. If you want to impress someone or simply cook the best roasted chicken dish you've ever tasted, you should give it a go. I didn't read the recipe carefully in advance--the chicken is supposed to be brined two days in advance--oh well. This is a link to my absolute favorite cooking blog and the recipe. Enjoy. Oh, and Bon Appetit!
Friday, June 10, 2011
When we first moved to Senegal, many fellow expats warned us not to trust the Senegalese, to keep our distance. A give and take relationship was impossible, they assured us, because the Senegalese, gentle as they may seem, were not culturally capable of a reciprocal friendship. I remember thinking, whenever I would hear such admonissions, and they were frequent, that surely these expats were missing something. They weren't looking deep enough, not able to invest in the time and patience it must take to build a relationship. It seemed like a gross generalization, a dehumanizing one, for all of us. And so, I chose to ignore it.
This story proves them all wrong. It happened to my husband Richard, on a recent ordinary day, which is of course when serendipity is most likely to strike. On this particular occasion, serendipity (such a feminine word) was ushered onto the scene by her ever-watchful companion, karma.
A 25-year old Toyota Landcruiser possesses lots of charms, particularly when you live in Africa. Talk about rugged. Talk about sturdy. Talk about able to get us home on a mud path laden with crater sized, rain-drenched pot holes. For all of these reasons and more, we love our car. And everyone knows that an old car, one without computer controls or online manuals, needs a veteran mechanic. A trustworthy mechanic who knows his engines and isn't afraid to take them apart. It took us a long time to find Babou, but we knew he was the one when he listened to our car the first time and said, "she's sick. I can fix her." No technical mumbo jumbo, just a straightforward prognosis with a fair price. He is a professional and an expert--someone we trust.
And so, over the last few months, we've recommended him to friends, acquaintences, business owners--anyone in need of a good mechanic. Word of mouth is how most good news travels here and it's always feels good to know that you are helping all involved.
One day this week, Richard travelled to a remote village to work with an elderly Haitian architect who has built an artist colony. He needed help completing the design and execution of a natural pool, one that uses aquatic plants instead of chlorine, to filter impurities. It wasn't a big job, but one that Richard was happy to work on out of great respect for this gentleman.
As Richard was leaving in the afternoon, he got as far as the next village and realized he didn't have much gas. He pulled over to see how much money he had in his wallet- he would need the equivilent of $20 to get him home. To his great horror, he had forgotten his wallet at home. As he stood outside in the morning heat leaning against the car, wondering how he was going to get home, he pulled out his telephone to call me. No credit. (Cellphones in Senegal work on phone cards which you replenish as you go). He didn't even have the gas required to travel back to his client.
Just then, he heard someone call his name. As he turned around, he saw Babou trotting across the street.
"Babou, what are you doing way out here in the middle of the week?", Richard asked.
He pointed across the street to a car on the side of the road. "I have a client who lives in this village. His car broke down this morning and he called me to come fix it."
They were both a long way from home, on the same day, in the same village, on the same street, at the same time.
Richard felt great relief at seeing not only a familiar face, but a friend. He could wait until Babou had fixed the other car and catch a ride back home. He'd somehow have to get back there to pick up our car, but he'd worry about that later. He was about to explain his predicament when Babou patted him on the shoulder and said,
"I'm so glad to see you. I was going to stop by your house later this afternoon."
"You're welcome any time Babou, but why did you want to see me?"
"I wanted to thank you. You've recommended so many clients to me lately and it has helped my business greatly. I'm no longer struggling. I can sleep at night. You have helped me more than you know."
"Please" he said, "take this as my way of thanks. I know it's not much, but maybe you can buy some gas with it."
With that, Babou handed Richard $20.00.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
"All things are ready if our minds be so."
I've been thinking alot about serendipity lately. And I'm not the only one. I hear stories all the time about people crossing each other's paths, resulting in a significant exchange, leaving both people with the distinct impression that they were meant to meet, for reasons big or small. Hearing about these stories is serendipitous in itself. It's hard to deny that some intangible force, be it God, Allah, Buddha, the Universe, or wherever we place our faith, helps us work things out together. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that these events tend to occur in direct proportion to our current personal and global fragility. Times are tough and scary. Tragedies touch us either personally or distantly, but we hear of or read about them often. The good news is, if we listen, we will also hear about (or hopefully experience) chance meetings, small miracles if you like, that lend a bit of grace and purpose to our day. And so I would be so bold as to altar Shakespeare's quote to read: "All things are ready if our hearts be so."
Here is one such story, Part I:
The Yellow House:
There is a young Senegalese man who often sings at the top of his lungs in what I presume to be a mixture of Wolof and Arabic. Sometimes he wanders out in the bush behind our house, slowly weaving among the giant Baobob trees. But most often he can be seen outside a nearby uninhabited house, wedged into the corner where two outside walls meet. He sings every day, but always at different times. Most days, I'm ashamed to admit, I want to wring his neck, or ducktape his mouth. There is nothing beautiful or particularly comforting about his singing. In fact, it's rather annoying. But nonetheless plaintive.
This morning I went in search of eggs. As I was walking along the dirt path towards the village, the singer began to wail. I could tell by the direction of his voice that he was in his usual spot, a spot I could not avoid. As uncomfortable as I was, I would have to pass him on my way to the boutique. I have always avoided direct contact with this young man, preferring to glimpse him off in the distance. Afterall, anyone who sings that loudly in the middle of nowhere has to be a little off their rocker, right?
As I approached, he suddenly stopped singing, which for some reason made me feel guilty. I had always envisioned a crazed, desperate individual with frantic eyes. Instead, here stood a calm, if not a little embarrassed, young guy wearing surfer shorts and a Bob Marley t-shirt. I said hello and told him not to stop singing on my account. He shuffled his feet a little and looked down at the ground. It was if he knew I had mocked him. I suddenly needed to make it right between us.
"What exactly are you singing about?" I asked.
"My problems," he replied. "I sing to Allah, but only when there is wind. The wind carries my voice and the echo carries Allah's message back to me."
"That's lovely," I said. "Does it really work?"
As I couldn't think of much more to say, I asked his name.
"Nice to meet you, Moustapha Diouf. My name is Ellen."
He half-bowed but did not move to shake my hand, which I took to mean that we had gotten close enough for one day. As I turned to continue along the path, he said,
"Allah has a message for you too."
I stopped. "Oh, really?" O.K., I thought, so the loose screw diagnosis was accurate afterall. Maybe Jim Morrison's got something to say while you're at it, buddy. But I had stopped, hadn't I? I, the jaded Catholic who was hard-pressed to define her "beliefs", had been stopped in her tracks by the possibility that I had a pending message . . . from Allah. At the moment, if felt oddly comforting.
"What is the message?" I ventured.
"I don't know, but you'll find it at the yellow house." And with that, he took up his singing again.
The yellow house is an old, wooden, barn-like structure that is a small miracle in itself in that it stands at all. I don't know how old it is, but I often marvel at the fact that termites haven't devoured it. I pass it every day. It's beautiful in an inexplicable way. But, I thought as I walked along, if Moustapha is right, today it will have new meaning. I walk past the house slowly, peering towards the windows, listening. But I don't really believe, not really. I stop, continue on, circle back. Nothing. No one. I linger in front for a few minutes and then decide to try the door, which is around the back. There is no door. The house, afterall, is abandoned. No one inside, only fallen boards with exposed rusted nails, shreds of faded fabric. I am suddenly crying. It's like someone has just told me there is no Santa Claus. No Santa, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, no God, no Allah. No Magical Yellow House with even the smallest tibit of Wisdom.
I continue on to the boutique where I go every day to stock up on sundries. Abdou tells me he doesn't have any eggs yet and to try the boutique a little father along in the village. I trudge my way through a sandy street I am not familiar with and spot the boutique up on the left. As I am about to enter, a little boy runs up to me and sticks out his hand. "Bonjour toubab," hello, white lady. He is about four and offers me a sturdy handshake and huge smile. This cheers me up, so I buy him a piece of candy inside the boutique, but no eggs. They haven't been delivered yet. When I step outside, the little boy is across the street, leaning against the wall. He has a deflated bicycle wheel in his hand and is studying it carefully, trying to find the hole. He sees me and there is that big smile again. When I hand him the candy he throws his arms around my legs. I ask him where he lives. He points to the gate and says, "fi, kai fi", here--come with me," and drags me through the gate. Inside, there is a large courtyard filled with chickens and a few goats. There are plastic buckets filled with laundry in different stages of soaking and a woman in the corner, who I assume is his mother, busy packaging the fresh eggs she has collected this morning. She stands to greet me and says, literally translated, "you are welcome here." I finally take in the house behind her, which is small . . . and crumbling in places . . . but clean and bright. . . . and a lovely shade of yellow.
On my way back home, my eggs tucked into my knapsack, I look for Moustapha. I want to share what happened to me. I listen for his voice, but he is nowhere to be found. The wind has died down.