The only saving grace in drastically screwing up my holiday dates and arriving in England a week early for a planned holiday with friends was the book I had ordered, with the idea of savouring it on the beach in Cornwall. Luckily, I suppose, I didn’t make it out of London before I realised my mistake. My brother made me a cup of tea – “because I understand that’s what you do in these sorts of situations” – I cried hysterically, bought three more Eurostar tickets and went back to Paris, and to the bakery for another week.
My colleagues teased me only a little, having waved goodbye to me and my overstuffed suitcase only 24 hours previously. The book went in my work bag along with neatly rolled apron, chef jacket and trousers. It was Anne Lamott’s latest journal, about her grandson’s birth and her trip to India, ‘Some Assembly Required.’ On the way home after work I became so lost in her words I missed my metro stop and had to walk back, blinking at the bright sunlight.
Her honest open writing, her willingness and skill in describing her vulnerability, paranoia and love always amaze me, constantly make me laugh. Searching for a quote to read to a friend, I found a good one on every page. Liked a throwaway line about spring:
‘a few cool blue skies, new grass, wildflowers and I’m in love. You’re going to fall for that old magic trick again? Oh, yeah.’
Paris has welcomed me back with a scrubbed-clean spring face. She can be such a tease, playing it cold and distant for months, then just when you think you can cope without her, she magicks up some blossoms, begs for forgiveness. And I fall for it every time.
The sunshine makes all the difference, of course. Suddenly the words are unspooling in my head again, finally my desire to cook for myself has come back, long dormant. I love cooking for friends, guests, presents – but alone, tired, grumpy? Not so much. Rather like a good night’s sleep after a week at work, everything seems shinier in the spring. People seem more attractive. Or maybe the Parisians finally have smiles on their faces as they drink beer by the canal and swing their legs over the water.
So I come home with energy and compassion, and fall on the recipe for Chicken Mole. Inspired by another book I received from a dear friend, ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ – a Mexican tale of magical realism, emotion poured into cooking – the casserole of chicken, tomatoes, paprika and chocolate transmitted all the love and warmth I had been missing over the winter.
Simple enough – you brown the chicken, cook some onions and garlic, add tins of tomatoes and beans and the final touch of chocolate and smoky chilis or paprika. (I snuck in a roasted red pepper and a little extra chocolate as well.) Then stick the pot in the oven for the flavours to bind and deepen for at least an hour and a half. Today I served it over a plain accompaniment of brown rice and devoured half of it standing up by the window. It tasted earthy and wholesome, not specifically of chocolate so much as a complex blend of savoury flavour. Tomorrow I will hunt for ripe avocados and corn tortillas as the recipe suggests, and I cannot wait. I am properly hungry again. It is a good feeling.
Next week I will be on holiday again, for real. The total cost of the aborted trip twists my insides a little, and it may well rain in Cornwall. But if I can hold onto the spring feeling regardless, and listen to the words and recipes growing … if I can weave half as good a story out of it – my seemingly endless screw-ups, my relationship with this tricky city – as Lamott does, then I will be extremely grateful.
from the Green & Black’s ‘Unwrapped’ chocolate recipe book, as inspired by Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate‘ – they advise serving with avocado salad and corn tortillas, or, if for vegetarians, replacing the chicken with an extra tin of kidney beans
should serve 4
1 large red pepper
4 chicken legs (thigh and drumstick)
2 tbs olive oil
2 large onions
2 garlic cloves
2 smoked, dried Jalapeno chili peppers, soaked in water
OR 2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
400g tin red kidney beans
400g tin chopped tomatoes
100g dark chocolate, min 60% cocoa solids
Stab the red pepper all over with a fork and bake in a 200C oven until soft and blackened.
Brown the chicken in the olive oil in a large oven proof casserole. After a few minutes, when the chicken has a little colour, add the onions and garlic. When they are translucent, add the beans (with all the liquid in the tin), the tomatoes, 50g of the chocolate. Either chop the dried and soaked chilis and add them in along with the soaking water, or use the smoked paprika. Bring to a simmer.
By this time the pepper should be done. Lower oven temperature to 150C. Remove pepper stalk and seeds, then roughly chop it and add to pot. Cover and place in the oven for at least 90 minutes.
Skim off any fat. Taste and add the rest of chocolate if needed, as well as some salt.