There is no better cure for fear than making a soffrito. I might have written this before: it’s still true. There is no room for fear in soffrito, no room for panic between the broad flat blade of a good knife and the translucent underside of a pale shallot or loud crisp carrot. I made soffrito tonight. 2015 has been a funny old year, or the first half of it has, at any rate. Funny peculiar. Funny scary. Funny not funny. I needed soffrito tonight. Celery, onions, carrots. Nothing else. Very pure and clear and good and wholesome and true. Nothing else.
There is no better cure for fear than making a soffrito, and like the Jewish grandmothers in the books we read as children, I believe in the healing power of chicken soup. So I made chicken soup. I needed a cure; a soffrito; a soup; a cure. And when the chicken was falling from the bones, tender and white, I reduced that soup down to a deep dark stock, and cooked in it couscous, and those little pasta stars I love so much, so that the house was full of true-scented steam, and the white bowls on the table were studded all through with stars.
The Tall Man was in the bath, with calamine lotion on his sunburn, and I was in the kitchen, taking deep breaths, and chopping, and we were building a fortress, against the world and the sirens outside, and the doctors down the road, and it was we two against it all, armed with a softly-bubbling pan of poaching chicken, and a little bottle of calamine lotion that smelled of childhood, and a basket of library books on the bedside table. I was afraid, and we made ourselves a safe place, which is all I ever want to do, really: it’s why I read, and why I cook, and why I write, and why I love the Tall Man (Tall, tall, tall, tall, tall man/ you bend so as not to dent the firmament…*).
And why, tonight, when I was scared, I made soffrito, and then this, and why after that I wrote this, and called it The Cure. Such safe words, and such a safe and soothing meal.
It did not take very long, and it was not difficult to do, and it was comforting, and sat with us a while, and in the good smells of carrot and onion and celery and chicken (and nothing else) I smelled something that was safe, and good, and true, and eternal, and I hoped, which (for the time being) had to be enough.
Serves two, if they really need it.
Two chicken legs (two thighs, two drumsticks)
Two sticks of celery
Four echallion shallots, or one large white onion
A handful of little stars, if liked. (I came across this construction in some old cookbook, and it charms me. That neat elision of words is very pleasing.)
Stock- enough to cover the chicken pieces when they are in your pan. You could use water and a stock cube; you could just use water. I had stock. I used stock. If you use just water, you will need salt.
A wok, or a big pan with a lid. A knife and a chopping board.
First prepare your soffrito, like this: take your carrot, and chop it very finely. I do this by making it into quarters lengthwise, and then slicing those quarters very thinly horizontally, and then sweeping the whole chopped mass into a heap and bringing the knife down very fast and at random. It takes me a long time, and a lot of concentration: this is how I like it.
Then the celery: two long sticks, chopped vertically into eight long sticks (which takes thought, and precision), and then into very many small horizontal pieces. As before.
And then shallots: in half, then each half into two, and then horizontal. They are sweet enough that they needn’t be so fine. If you are very sad, chop more finely. Continue chopping. Continue: I have made soffritos so fine that they seemed almost elegant, like jewels.
Bring your soffrito to the pan, and set it on the heat. Dust it with pepper, splash it with olive oil. Not too much. On a medium flame, soften these vegetables, and breathe deeply while you do it: there is no smell more calming, more domestic, more safe.
Let it soften, and while it softens turn your attention to the chicken: you need to strip off the skin and fat. This is not difficult, but it is a little unpleasant. The drumstick can be skinned like removing a stocking, with a bit of brute force at the end. For the thigh, you only need to find the places where the skin clings to the meat, and cut those threads: your hand can slip between the skin and the flesh easily.You will be surprised at how little holds them together (how little holds animals together; how little holds us together). At the edges of the meat you will need a knife to take off the fat. Discard the fat.
Add these skinned chicken pieces to the softened vegetables, and pour over the cold stock, or water, and bring up over a high-ish heat to a gentle, lazy boil, the kind where bubbles break on the surface as if they didn’t much care whether they do or don’t.
Pay attention to the bubbles: care about the bubbles. When they are the right gentle kind, cover the pan, and lower the heat. Medium-low. Check after thirty minutes, when the meat should be coming apart. You should not even need to strip them much, only reach in and pull away the white bones. Leave the lid off now, and reduce the chicken-soffrito-liquor to a heady, heavy stock. This is what will take your couscous, and your little stars.
Measure out your little stars: two tablespoons, preferably into a little blue and white enamel cup. take up your copy of The Haunting Of Hill House, because there’s only one thing more comforting than chicken soup and it’s a ghost story happening to somebody else, and turn to the page where Eleanor sees the little girl in the restaurant:
“Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.”
Then add the cup of stars to the reduced chicken, and turn the heat right low, and cook for about five minutes. Taste. Taste. The stars should be al dente, and then you can take the pan from the heat entirely, and add the couscous. This is not an exact recipe: it can’t be, because your pan is not my pan, your chicken is not my chicken. So. Add the couscous to the thick stock, and stir: it should look thick and heavy and deep and grainy. Don’t worry too much if it seems wrong: you can always add more water, or heat it to reduce. It’ll be ok.
(You can add, here, if you like some chopped dried apricots, or sultanas: I wanted very simple, very easy, very beautiful, so I didn’t.)
Add another big pinch of freshly ground black pepper. Cover. Five minutes, six or seven won’t hurt it. Spoon into bowls, and let it sit a minute or two, to cool down a little. (It is July, after all.)
And call for Tall Man to come through from the bath, cakefree and dried, and retire both to bed, with a stack of mystery novels, and love each other, and feel safer, and more hopeful, and say to each other that just for tonight everything is absolutely going to be absolutely all right.
* This is from a poem by Rebecca Lindenberg, who also once had a Tall Man. Tall Man is not named for the poem: it is a coincidence, and it is also a coincidence that Lindenberg’s feelings about love are the same as my own- or perhaps that is how poetry always works. I would like to write Rebecca Lindenberg a letter and tell her, thank you, my copy of your book is stained and battered and full of love.