There has been a light covering of snow today together with a barrage of frozen pellets giving a bubble-wrap appearance to the ground outside. It is chillingly cold and I have been dipping into your book for something warm and comforting to make for dinner. The recipe I settle on is 'Chicken with Fennel and Leek' (pg 257). My guest has affectations of 'glamour' but I know that simple comfort food like this will be what her palate would choose if left to its own devices.
The chicken thighs are browning nicely in the oil and butter, the spitting noises in the pan masking the rush of the brook outside the window which is running very fast due to all the rain we've had recently. A damp, dark winter. The woman in front of me at the checkout was taking an inordinate amount of time choosing the right bar of chocolate with which to comfort herself against it all. I don't blame her, chocolate has been known to help in many a time of stress. All first aid boxes should come equipped with some, I think.
Aside from Christmas, the great chocolate-eating time, of course, is Easter. There is something so very lovely about an elongated globe of chocolate wrapped in pastel foils and embellished with ribbon that is so completely out of proportion to the often rather disappointing contents within. Even if the chocolate is a good one the egg is often empty. I want to see mine explode with a fountain of tiny chocolates - at least a kilo's worth - within.
In our house the season is usually accompanied by the remembering, by one or other of my older ones, of the case of the missing Easter Egg. Such is the magnitude of this crime that even now, almost twenty years later, the perpetrator has never been allowed to forget it.
My Mum had come to stay bearing gifts of many Easter eggs, one for each one of us - large quantitative ones for small children and rather special 'adult' ones for us, smaller and beautifully packaged. I took great delight in placing mine on the top shelf in the walk-in pantry where I could gaze at it in all its prettiness every time I stepped through the door. Here it remained for an uncharacteristically long time.
Eventually the day came when I had to destroy its prettiness and consume the contents. I carefully opened the beautifully sealed box, took out the plastic moulding, lined with a lovely peony-shaded foil and....nothing. The box was completely empty. I looked in the box again, as if this would magically make the chocolate appear, and then called all my suspects for a line up and inspection.
That the dog had not eaten it was irrefutable as the pantry shelf was too high and anyway she would have no doubt eaten the cardboard box as well. That a mouse, or even a whole family of them, had not got in and consumed the entire contents was also pretty certain as not many mice, in my experience, have worked out how to replace the packaging with such care as to cover up their crime. Of my cast of suspects things were less clear cut. Several of them appeared to look guilty and only an in depth knowledge of their psychological makeup would uncover the perpetrator. One had the ability to swear blind that he wasn't even in the vicinity with such conviction that it was impossible to believe otherwise, even if later proved to be the villain. This would prove to be a very handy characteristic in his future Sales work. Another would simply go red in the face and appear guilty as hell despite having a cast iron alibi to the contrary.
The master of this crime, I believed, was both very clever in covering up his crime for so long and also fairly ingenious in his reconstruction. William. Five years old and with no flies on him. The body of evidence was 'clear and convincing' it seemed to me, in legal terms. His way of averting punishment was to flash an impossibly endearing wicked grin that inevitably worked in his favour every time.
I consigned the empty box to the bin and the perpetrator to his room. The lasting regret I had was for the prettiness of the box which I could have kept, rather than for the uneaten chocolate within. Today I have no problem passing the chocolate counter. My comfort will come in the form of chicken and leeks and fennel. There are no surprises in this dish. All is just as it should be. We live in an age of uncertainty, and to comfort ourselves, we need to know that some things in life at least are certain. 'Familiar flavours. A meal to nourish,' you say.
I decamp the bubbling stock, the chicken and vegetables to my largest casserole as the saute pan is struggling to cope with so much. Perhaps your pan is larger than mine but a litre of stock and six thighs and veg take up quite some room. I inhale deeply and feel comforted already. It is snowing properly outside for the first time this winter. My guest is glammed up and ready for a stroll down to the trattoria it appears. I put an extra log on the log burner.
As we sit down to eat and I take my first few mouthfuls I realise something else. There is something new. The lemon juice added right at the end of cooking, and, strangely enough the chopped parsley, have made this a light and optimistic dish as well. Not swimming in cream or other fattening things, it is a good candidate for a light and healthy diet. Well done, Nigel.