October 23, 2009

life cycle

Fall is here. In breathtaking strokes of colour, streaked by a sun that is harsh as it lowers itself in the sky. The haze that burns the sky white in summer is blown out. The blue through to space is clean and pure and ready for winter.

I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the fall but Canada.

It was the mark of fall – the rocky outcrop, Lake Joseph, the Muskoka chairs, the wine, the beer, the caesars, the snacks and handful of women who trek up to the cottage the weekend after Thanksgiving every year to laugh, drink, laugh, eat, and laugh. And eat.

The cottage itself is a testament to another time. It sits on stilts over the water, blending the land and lake. Its glory is fading. The porch off the living room faces east. In the morning, we were sitting nursing cups of coffee in the cold, the water looked like a basket weaver’s work – diagonal lines crossing through each other in perfect sequence. Looking to the east, as the sun was pulling up over the tree line, the water let go its heat and mist rose…and I'm not kidding, a loon cried out far away. Slowly the other women followed the light and pulled chairs into the sun and our day was begun.

We have been going up there every year of this decade at least…and it marks our lives each year. Our host and her former husband had wild parties up there but after their break up the weekend became a way to connect with her women friends.

We come from all walks of life. There are a few tv people, a couple of teachers, a medical administrator, an adventure company owner, an executive with a non profit, an outdoor educator/guide, and we’re deep into or on the cusp of middle age. We are smart and funny - even without the wine.

Most of us only see each other for this weekend – and every year there’s something new – a marriage, a baby, a career change, travel, illness, recovery, discovery.

However, the price of admission - apart from closing up the cottage for the owners on the Sunday - is our host makes us set goals for the coming year. And we have to answer for them next year.

The goals are as varied as we are in personality. One of my favourites this year was Kathleen who wants to find her inner princess. To treat herself well…so some are about self improvement, others want to play the ukulele, one woman wants to find a way to help homeless animals, and Marney is registered for the Ironman Canada triathlon for her 50th birthday, and Erin just wants her hair back.

She looked at me saying, “I want my hair to look like that. It’s not fair,” she said. I flinched inside – it hurt. And it’s true. My hair is back in full swing and gradually growing down to my shoulders and there’s no way to change the fairness of that. Whatever the future holds.

We talked about our year – we toasted Erin who wants her hair back…she is battling recurrent cancer with everything she’s got. And holding her own thank you very much. We toasted her for just being here, when at the beginning of the year we all wondered what 2009 held for her. Jennie lost an employee/friend in a horrific accident while he was on the job. It was also unfair. She sobbed through the telling with such genuine affection for him and guilt for what happened - and she said that he lived by his own rules, he knew who he was…all that at 26. So many live so long never able to say that. Living by your own rules, your own standards…that is quite an achievement in a young life. Carol jumped back into the freelance world after her job collapsed from under her and she’s stitching together her living – single, mortgage holder, making it work. These are strong, remarkable women.

I personally hate goal setting. I’ve always resisted it – I don’t like the set up for disappointment. I’ve done it over and over and over, and don’t get any better at it. I’m already pretty good at beating myself up so I don’t need another missed goal to point out my flaws.

Actually, to be honest, on these cottage weekends, I have always achieved my goals – but that’s because I’ve managed to set my goal posts so wide I couldn’t miss (well couldn’t miss anything other than the point of the exercise, of course).

Although the gods have a sense of humour: six years ago I set my goal low – as always – it was to have a date. One. In the next year. The following October the women’s weekend was two weeks after my wedding. Total overachiever. Total. Yes.

So last year I went practical. I set the goal of writing up the collection of recipes that we have cooked over the years. Because the food has been remarkable. And of course I didn’t get it done. I put out an APB to the women a few weeks ago asking them to at least help me remember all the dishes – and many came to my rescue…but it wasn’t done.

The morning we drove up I came up with a perfect roundtable logic of success…while I had set my goal to create the cookbook, my actual clandestine goal was to fail at the goal…since I always achieve my goal, I wanted to see what this failure thing was all about…or so went my explanation that night. The goal keeper looked back at her notes from last year and said, “No you didn’t fail. You said you’d start collecting the recipes. And you've started.” So I failed at failing. Or something.

We were fourteen at table on Saturday night. It was cold – even for this normally cold weekend, the thermometer couldn’t really rouse itself into double digits. So the fireplace in the big, old dining room was lit, the huge table set (it can sit 14 comfortably).

Wendy and I got to work in the kitchen. This seems to be the year to try a Julia Child recipe. So that's what we did. Coq au vin – and browning enough chicken for 14 does not make for a happy smoke detector. That picture of us is just after we smoked out the entire kitchen.

But Julia is a classic for a reason - that chicken stew was pretty damned delicious. We served it with salad and boiled new potatoes in parsley butter.

Now I found the recipe in a book I am totally enjoying, American Food Writing, by Molly O’Neill. It has everything – essays on food by Thomas Jefferson to Walt Whitman to David Sedaris. And recipes for the likes of ketchup, peach leather (from 1867), or cranberry sauce (from 1901), even Thomas Jefferson's ice cream. And of course at the end of a piece by Julia Child about the making of her tv show, Molly reproduced the Julia’s Coq au Vin recipe.

It was perfect. The weekend and the food - warming to the soul, deep and personal. That’s goal enough I think.

Coq au Vin – a la Julia Child -

We doubled these amounts to serve 14, browning the chicken in two pans, much to the consternation of the smoke detector.

3-4 oz chunk of lean bacon
2 tb butter
2 ½ to 3 lbs. cut up frying chicken (we used boneless thighs, but I've made it before with bone in and most people swear by the extra flavour the bones impart)
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper

¼ cup cognac

3 cups young, full-bodied red wine (burgundy, Beaujolais, chianti)
1-2 cups brown chicken stock
½ tbsp tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
¼ tsp thyme
1 bay leaf

12 to 24 brown-braised onions
½ lb. sautéed mushrooms

3 tb flour
2 tb softened butter
a saucer
a rubber spatula
a wire whip

Remove the rind and cut the bacon into lardons (rectangles ¼ inch and 1 inch long). Simmer for 10 minutes in 2 quarts of water. Rinse in cold water. Dry.

Sauté the bacon slowly in hot butter until it is very lightly browned. Remove to a side dish.

Dry the chicken thoroughly. Brown it in the hot fat.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Return the bacon to the casserole with the chicken. Cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes, turning the chicken once.

Uncover, and pour in the cognac. Ignite the cognac with a match. Shake the casserole back and forth for several seconds until the flames subside.

Pour the wine into the casserole. Add just enough stock to cover the chicken. Stir in the tomato paste, garlic, and herbs. Bring to the simmer. Cover and simmer slowly for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and its juices run a clear yellow when the meat is pricked with a fork. Remove the chicken to a side dish.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms.

Simmer the chicken cooking liquid in the casserole for a minute or two, skimming off fat. Then raise heat and boil rapidly, reducing the liquid to about 2 ¼ cups. Correct seasoning. Remove from heat, and discard bay leaf.

Blend the butter and flour together into a smooth paste (beurre manie). Beat the paste into the hot liquid with a wire whip. Bring to the simmer, stirring, and simmer for a minute or two. The sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon lightly.

Arrange the chicken in the casserole, place the mushrooms and onions around it, and baste with the sauce. If the dish is not to be served immediately, film the top of the sauce with stock or dot with small pieces of butter. Set aside uncovered. It can wait indefinitely.

Shortly before serving, bring to the simmer, basting the chicken with the sauce. Cover and simmer slowly for 4 to 5 minutes, until the chicken is hot through.

Serve from the casserole, or arrange on a hot platter. Decorate with sprigs of parsley.

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