Maine & the Mediterranean: Thoughts before a coastal winter storm

What should we have on hand, we asked, as the weatherman predicted disaster.

Candles? Plenty of those left over from Christmas.

Batteries? Yes, for all the different sizes of flashlights.

Wood—there’s a towering wood pile right outside the back door and we have both a fireplace in the living room and a tight little Vermont Castings stove in the kitchen to keep us warm if the power goes out.

Back in Tuscany, in our high mountain valley, we would often get snow and frost in the wintertime, but seldom anything like the intense cold, the gusty snow blizzards and arctic blasts that happen at least once or twice a winter here on the coast of Maine. Still, when people ask me why I’m not in Italy at this time of year, I have to say I actually prefer Maine where we’ve learned over the generations to cope with the cold. Mediterranean houses lack any kind of rational heating system, unlike ours in Maine where we rely on a combination of wood, a pair of ultra-modern heat exchangers, and an oil-fired furnace to back it all up. Tuscan farmhouses feature deep, open fireplaces that cast out more smoke than heat, and moreover the thick stone walls of a typical casa colonica suck up cold and damp like sponges, just adding to the chill. We are cozy in Maine despite the raging storm outside.

But what about food?
I think back to all the Mediterranean kitchens and pantries I’ve known and how well stocked they are to see a family, come what may, through winter’s long dark nights and cold, rainy days when the earth is soggy under leaden skies.

All around the Mediterranean, in every farmhouse and in many city apartments as well, you’ll find the provender, lined up on shelves or stored in big crocks and bins on the floor. When we lived in Beirut, our friends, both US-trained medical doctors at the American University Hospital, used to go back to their family villages in the fall to stock up on olive oil, bulgur wheat, dried beans, onions and garlic, all raised on mountain farms. In Madrid, provisions were more meager but there was always a cheese safe in the cellar with at least a couple of stout rounds of manchego, gradually growing more pungent as the winter progressed, plus strings of red peppers and garlic and a couple of dried sausages if not a full-fledged jamon.

Peppers drying, Espelette, Basque country

In Puglia, there were dried branches of wild oregano hanging from beams along with whole stalks of tomatoes, the small ones called pomodori a pennnula, grown specifically to last in a dry pantry through the winter and provide ever sweeter fragrance for a pasta sauce And in Morocco and Tunisia, there were big jars of salted lemons and crocks filled with khlea or khlii, a confit of lamb preserved in its own fat. And of course everywhere there were bins of dried legumes (beans of all shapes and sizes, chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and the ancient legumes Italians call cicerchie), and nuts–almonds and chestnuts, walnuts and pistachios, depending on where the cook and provisioner is located.

Here in Maine, the pantry is always well-stocked, if not as elaborately as in the Mediterranean. We have jars of tomato sauce, Italian pomarola, and whole tomatoes (pelati in Italian) and inevitably boxes of pasta and bags of beans and lentils.

pomarola

There’s almost always a wedge of parmigiano in the cheese drawer as well as dried red chilis, and dried mushrooms. With these and some onions and garlic, the ever-present jug of olive oil, and maybe a handful of black olives and a couple of anchovies, I can always throw together a pasta dish that will be both filling and enormously welcome when the wind is howling and the snow is blowing like crazy. And then there’s popcorn—nothing better in a blizzard than a big bowl of fresh popcorn, eaten languidly, perhaps with a new Christmas book to crack open too.

Chicken Soup for a Blizzard

But this past blizzardy weekend, I set myself to making a big pot of chicken stock which not only provides for the family but also fills the house with a warm, herby, roasted fragrance that drives away the tempest all on its own.

It’s so easy to do that I often wonder why more cooks don’t take the time to make stock once a week or so. Here’s how it works:

Of course, you’ll need a big stock pot, one that’s large enough to hold the whole bird and a good 8 or 10 cups of water too. This will give you about 10 cups of finished stock.

One of Eleanor's backyard birds

One of Eleanor’s backyard birds

Every traditional, which is to say, old-fashioned, cookbook will tell you that the very best chicken for stock is an old bird, a laying hen that has gone past her prime, or even a rooster. But just try finding one of those in our modern world. Unless you raise chickens yourself (not, actually a bad idea), you’ll  use what’s on offer whether it’s in a local supermarket, at an organic coop, or a farmstand. A bird that weighs 4 to 5 pounds is ideal.

What else will you need?

  • A couple of medium yellow onions, unpeeled but quartered
  • A couple of fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a knife blade
  • A couple of medium to large carrots, cut in chunks
  • Half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 small handful of fresh thyme or a teaspoon of dried thyme, crumbled
  • 2 bayleaves
  • Sea salt and a pinch of whole black peppercorns
  • Optional additions:
    • A 3-inch cinnamon stick, broken in half
    • An inch-long piece of fresh ginger, split and smashed
    • A small dried red chili pepper
    • A sprig or two of fresh rosemary
    • A teaspoon of dried oregano, crumbled
    • A pinch of saffron threads to give the stock a golden color

Now the number one question: Should you rinse the chicken? The food world is divided on this. I give chicken a quick rinse just to get rid of any excess bits of skin or what-have-you, but USDA cautions against rinsing, saying you’ll only spread salmonella all over your sink and kitchen. I try to buy chickens that are not contaminated in the first place, and in the second place, I don’t splash water all over everything when I rinse. You do what you want and what seems right to you.

Having made that momentous decision, you may now proceed with the recipe which is simply to set the chicken, rinsed or not, in the big stock pot along with the onions, garlic, carrot, parsley, thyme, and bayleaves. Add 10 cups of water, cool from the tap, and set over medium heat. Add salt and black peppercorns and bring slowly to a simmer, uncovered. For the clearest stock, carefully skim off the froth that rises to the top and discard it. When the froth has ceased rising, add any of the optional aromatics (not all of them, please–be selective), cover the pot and cook at a very slow simmer for at least 1 ½ hours or longer if necessary. The bird should be so thoroughly cooked that the meat is falling off the bones.

At the end of the cooking time, strain the stock through a double layer of cheesecloth or a very fine-mesh sieve. Discard the vegetables and aromatics. Discard the skin and bones from the chicken and dice the meat, setting it aside in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it. Put the strained stock in the refrigerator to let the fat rise to the top and solidify, after which it can be removed easily with a slotted spoon.

At this point, the stock is done and ready to be used further, reheating to make a soup, or stored in the freezeer in smaller one- or two-cup containers, ready for use in sauces, risottos, or minestrones.

On this winter day, though, I turned 4 cups of the stock into a hearty soup, simply adding some cooked rice, a few celery stalks and a few scallions, both sliced thin, some minced cilantro and a good helping of chunks of the cooked chicken. It was deeply satisfying.

And the rest? Tomorrow I’ll make Vietnamese chicken pho for the grandson who adores that elegant combination of flavors, fish sauce, cilantro, lime juice, and ginger.

 

 

 

 

 


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