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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Depths of Winter

A couple summers ago, my brother gave me a small, potted olive tree for my birthday. It was August. The tree basked in the warm breezes and bright sunshine. Olives appeared. Those gorgeous silvery-green leaves sprouted. Life was good.

Winter arrived and the tree suffered. The leaves fell off. For a plant, it looked unhappy. Instructions that came with the tree directed me to find a “sunny” spot for "Olive". Additional web browsing revealed the tree needed a minimum of six hours, (yikes!! SIX HOURS?) of direct sunshine. Listen here, people! Chicago, in January, simply cannot deliver this. Darkness prevails. An impervious, gray cloud cover stays positioned over the city and days, no weeks, can pass without a single glimpse of sun. Our retired neighbors flee…some to Mexico, some to Florida. Sitting on the bus, surrounded by weary gray people bundled to their ears, makes me feel I’m part of a Hopper painting.

Here’s the thing, though…and you can call me a freak, but, I really believe it’s not so bad. Maybe I have low light-requirement levels, but to me there’s something soothing about our dark winters. Cloudy days encourage things like wandering through the Art Institute, reading, watching an old movie on tv on a Sunday afternoon or puttering in the kitchen and filling the apartment with the wonderful smells of something sweet or savory. There’s something about this kind of weather that engages the mind, and makes it turn inward. (Is it weird to say that I also love the subtle range of winter colors? The pewter of a sky heavy with snow. The purple-y gray of the horizon as the light fades at the end of the day. The beiges and browns of the barren shrubs and trees…sigh. Ok…enough!) The world moves so fast and we all feel so strapped for time…maybe winter is a way to force a little contemplation?

This is not true for everyone, and I feel lucky that the gloom doesn’t feel oppressive to me. (I have the opposite issue: places like LA make me cranky and nervous with all that relentless sun.) Anyway, this all brings me to how much I love cooking in winter. Yes, I love meat! And, yes, I love hearty, rustic foods, but sometimes, I crave something warm and comforting, but not too heavy or rich.

Nigel to the rescue! One of the many reasons I love his cookbook, Kitchen Diaries, is the feeling of camaraderie as I read along through the year. (This is one of those cookbooks which can live on your nightstand!) January in England is similar to January here. So when Nigel talks about it being dark and gray and having only a turnip and a few potatoes in his cupboards, it’s often the same situation in my own kitchen.

One of my favorite recipes is for what he calls, “Succulent little patties”. These tasty meatballs served in hot broth are just the thing for a wintry weeknight. A fat wedge of lemon is crucial here…the spritz of citrus over this dish before serving is like a little burst of sunshine. You can use ground turkey, or ground chicken and the addition of chopped pancetta or prosciutto (I’ve even used regular bacon in a pinch) gives the little guys a beautiful smoky, salty flavor.

I remember being utterly charmed by them the first time, and since then have made a few tweaks of my own. There’s also something about meatballs, as Nigel points out, ”they have a down-to-earth friendliness to them. A meatball never says, ‘Look at me, aren’t I clever?’ It just says, ‘Eat me.’”

Here’s to a happy, and healthy 2008 and the friendly meatball cheering us through the depths of winter.

Chicken Patties with Rosemary and Pancetta
adapted from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries

Serves 4

a medium onion, finely chopped
garlic--2 cloves, finely chopped
a thick slice of butter
4 slices of prosciutto, or a quarter-inch thick chunk of pancetta, or 4 slices of regular American smoked bacon, chopped
rosemary--three bushy sprigs
"minced" (ground) chicken, or turkey--1 lb.
vegetable oil, for frying
chicken stock--2 cups

Soften the chopped onion and garlic in the butter in a non-stick pan over medium heat, until they are golden. Stir in the chopped prosciutto/pancetta. Strip the rosemary leaves from their stalks, chop them finely, then add them to the onions, letting it all cook for a few minutes until golden.

Let the mixture cool on a large dinner plate.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the ground turkey/chicken and the onion mixture, seasoning with black pepper and the tiniest pinch of salt -- the prosciutto is already salty so you can take it easy here.

Shape the meatballs and slightly flatten them. (Nigel says to make them the size of a "digestive biscuit", which I improvise to mean the size of a round water cracker.)
If you have time, refrigerate for up to 30 minutes. I've done as little as 15 minutes, and it seems to work.

Wipe the onion pan clean and get it hot. Add a little vegetable oil and brown the patties on both sides--a few minutes on each side should do it. Transfer them to an ovenproof dish -- I use a deep, round pie dish. Deglaze those gorgeous brown bits left in the pan with a half-cup or so of the chicken stock and pour that all over the patties. Add the rest of the chicken stock and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. (Adjust baking time to how big your patties are...if you are shaping them on the larger side you may need an additional 5-10 minutes in the oven.)

Serve two to three to a person in a shallow bowl and spoon some broth over. Squeeze a nice wedge of lemon over each serving, or serve with lemon wedges.

Nigel suggests a spinach salad on the side, and I second this, along with a crusty loaf of bread.


Jane said...

I am making these for dinner tonight. I thought about them all day and I just bought the rosemary and chicken at Whole Foods.

Will report back.

Jane said...

These were so delicious, and so not hard to make. The experience, in fact, was the kind of meditative cooking I like: pleasure, interest, simplicity.

On the side, we had bread (as you recommended), and instead of spinach salad, I served braised & glazed brussel sprouts (from Bittman's new vegetarian cookbook) and also rice pilaf, just because everyone likes rice pilaf.

There are some leftovers in the fridge. I am *so* looking forward to lunch today.