On Sunday afternoon, I stood up in the kitchen and cooked. Now, of course, for months, that was a quotidian activity for me. A daily activity I never took for granted. The ineffable grace of a mundane day. But for the previous nine days, standing in the kitchen was nigh on impossible. And when I did stand to make that roast chicken, or cut up pomegranates, I propped up my foot on a blond-wood stool. And then lie down after fifteen minutes.
But on Sunday, I started to feel better. I still have six weeks before I have a left foot back again, but the big, galumphy boot cast is doing its work. I feel protected. I can hobble, awkwardly, down the hall at school. I’m still hurting, but I’m walking. And on Sunday, I was back to cooking.
Whatever I do, I do it fully.
I read, on Sunday, that Paper Chef loomed before us. This time, it’s being hosted by the singular Mrs. D at Belly Timber. I love that she and Chopper Dave live on an island north of here, out in the woods, with their.…um…cluttered kitchen. She’s a writer, funny as hell, and great fun to read. I had to participate.
Every month, at Paper Chef, the host decides on four ingredients (a la the much-more-intense Iron Chef), and then we create dishes from scratch, with those four ingredients. This competition’s ingredients were lamb, oranges, basil, and fish sauce.
Lamb? I’ve never cooked it before. But I have to admit, I do love it. I came to lamb late in life. Even before I became a vegetarian, in my twenties, I had never eaten lamb. All I could think of was wooly little beings gamboling in the new spring grass. I could just never bring myself to eat it. But one night, in Manhattan, I sat in a diner on 100th Street, with my friends Meri and Will. I had given up the vegetarian thing two years previous, and I had just started eating meat again, at my brother’s wedding. Crammed into the red vinyl booths, the three of us sat talking about food. (Not much a surprise, really.) Will told us he was going to order the lamb chops. I admitted I had never eaten lamb. He and Meri urged me to try it. I wavered. They urged me again. I relented. I took one bite, closed my eyes, and sighed. Ah, my god, the taste. Like beef, but more nuanced, chewier, more memorable. I was hooked. It’s hilarious that I had my first lamb in a diner in New York, but life is full of contradictions.
So cooking it for the first time, while I wore a boot cast and hobbled from the couch filled with pillows? No problem.
Oranges? No problem there. I adore them. And this is the season. Navel oranges. Satsumas. Mandarins. Even kumquats. In the dead of winter, these bright-orange globes make the greyest days much lighter. And who couldn’t use more vitamin C in these flu-infested months? Some lovely people have been struck down with mono. (Feel better, Molly. And Tita.) So the more orange juice in my life, just fine.
And basil? Well, everyone by now should know how much basil I eat. Pestos, salads, on top of fish, in the pockets of broiled peaches—basil just makes me happy. One deep whiff, the sweet green flavor, the height of summer sitting deep in my chest—basil just makes me feel free. And since I just learned how to cut it in a chiffonade—basil makes me feel like a real cook. So basil? No problem.
Only one problem. Fish sauce.
Fish sauce, although wonderfully flavorful and essentital to so many Asian dishes, often contains monosodium glutamate. Translation? MSG. Translation? Gluten. And even if I used only a splash of it on the lamb, I’d be sick for days. Headaches, exhaustion, spaciness, intestinal problems, moodiness—none of that sounds appetizing. Um, no thanks. I may like Paper Chef, but not enough to eat gluten.
(After some research, I did find that the Thai Kitchen brand fish sauce is gluten-free. But of course, I couldn’t drive around looking for it this weekend. Next time?)
So here it was, the first day I could cook again, and I couldn’t do Paper Chef?
Then, the thought occurred to me. Fish sauce. Fish stock. Well, at least they sound alike.
So I took the bus the twelve blocks to where my car had been parked for over a week. Afraid of a ticket, I tentatively drove the stick shift, pushing against the clutch with the bottom of my boot cast. I just wanted to put it in my driveway again. It hurt a bit to work the clutch. I wouldn’t do it again. But the butcher’s was on the way home.…
At the Wild Salmon Seafood Market, Michael (my fishmonger) found one last container of frozen shellfish stock in the freezer for me. And then we talked soup. Because, spontaneously, I decided I needed to make a seafood soup, even though I had never made one before. Luckily, Michael doesn’t seem to mind if I ask him thirty-four questions about fish and how to cook it. I left with halibut, prawns, clams, and Dungeness crab meat. Ah, a Seattle Sunday.
Oh, and on the other side of the store, I snagged the last lamb shank left. This was my lucky day. And then, slowly, a little afraid, I drove home to cook.
I had no recipes. I had never cooked lamb before. I had never made a seafood soup. But who needs recipes? Maybe I was emboldened by the joy of cooking again, after days and days of laying on the couch in pain. Or maybe I just trust myself now. Michael had walked me through the basics of how to time the cooking the fish. And I have been reading about braising a lot lately, mabybe because winter is coming fully. Maybe because I’m coveting a Le Creuset. So I figured I could go on instinct alone. And if it was a disaster, at least it would be a funny post.
It was no disaster. Oh goodness, of all the good meals I’ve eaten in the last few months, this was one of the best. It was made with joy. It tasted of joy.
I bashed up the zest of two oranges, about a cup of basil I had cut in a chiffonade, four cloves of garlic, and sea salt. Lately, I’ve been using my mortar and pestle for every recipe. It’s good for aggression. It’s good for my biceps. And everything seems to taste better after I use it. After it was a coarse paste, I added olive oil, and stirred it around. I smeared it, lovingly, all over the lamb shank. Then I poured orange juice over it all, placed some lime leaves on top, and put it into a 325° oven for two and a half hours. When I pulled it out, the meat was falling off the bone. I could taste the citrus, the hint of summer, the red, dense flesh, the garlic, all the cooking. And I cleaned the bone of every shred of meat in five minutes flat.
I’m going to cook lamb again and again.
And the soup? The recipe is below, so I won’t describe it all. I’ll just say that I used the mortar and pestle again to grind up a good chunk of saffron threads with coarse sea salt. It turned the soup a luscious yellow. I had a couple of cups of homemade chicken stock left over, and I threw that in with the defrosted shellfish stock. Creamy goodness wafted toward my nose. I timed out the fish carefully, according to Michael’s directions. And just as the soup was about to reach the peak of perfection, my friend Amy stopped by for a cup of tea. Instead, I lay a bowl of yellowy seafood soup in front of her. She ate it all up, happily. When I asked her if she’d change anything, since it’s the first time I’d ever made it, she said, “Not a thing. It’s wonderful just like this.”
I have to say, I agree.
LAMB SHANK BRAISED WITH ORANGE AND BASIL
1 lamb shank
zest of two oranges
1/2 cup of basil, cut into a chiffonade
four cloves of garlic
1/4 cup of olive oil
five lime leaves
the juice of the two oranges
°Preheat the oven to 325°.
°Grind up the orange zest, basil, garlic cloves, and sea salt into a fine paste. Add the olive oil to make a fragrant marinade. Coat the lamb shank with this.
°Juice the two oranges, then pour the juice over the lamb shank in the braising pot. Lay some lime leaves on top. Put the lamb into the oven for two and a half hours, or until the meat is ready to fall off the bone.
SHAUNA’S SEAFOOD SOUP
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 tablespooons of good, creamy butter
6 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of saffron threads
1 to 2 teaspoons of sea salt, depending on taste
1 pint of half and half
2 cups of homemade chicken stock
1 1/2 cups of shellfish stock
4 or 5 lime leaves
1 pound of halibut, seared and chunked
12 prawns, deveined, shells on
10 manilla clams
1/4 cup of Dungeness crab meat
°Sautee the onion in the butter until they are soft. Add the garlic and cook for a few moments.
°As the garlic and onion are softening, grind the saffron into the salt until it is a lovely orange.
°Add the saffron salt to the onions and garlic. Stir.
°Pour in the half and half, and simmer slowly on medium heat until it is warmed. Do not let it boil over.
°When the entire mixture is heated, add the chicken stock and shellfish stock. Heat slowly on medium to medium-low heat (depending on your stove). Add in some lime leaves for a piquant taste.
°When the cream base is hot enough, sear the halibut for one minute on each side to bring out the flavor. Break it into chunks with your fingers. Add the halibut to the soup. (It should cook for ten minutes, total.)
°After five minutes, add the prawns to the soup.
°Three minutes later, add the clams. When they have opened, the soup is ready. (About two minutes.)
°Layer the bottom of the bowl with Dungeness crab meat, then pour the hot soup on top. Eat immediately.