Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Reindeer and Stew

Holiday Mug from Pier I Imports  $8 CDN.
The snow arrived Monday. It was simply a matter of time. It didn't fall in big fluffy flakes. It came in a powder, blowing and squalling with insignificant accumulation, as if to say, "I'm here now, I am not planning to melt, and I will grow fierce and icy and make your driving hell." And it continues into the night. Eventually, the centimetres will add up, finally convincing disbelievers that winter tires really are necessary. That rasp hitting those ears? It's not cousin Freddy playing with the garden hose again. It's frostbite.

Time for the boots and gloves and voluminous coats. Time for the fashion-forward scarves, hats and mufflers; the half-hands and furry leg warmers, many of which will scream hot red, pink, purple, yellow, gray and winter white.

If it's one thing Canadians do well, it's winter with an attitude, a kind of western capitalist denial that spring blooms are locked up for six months in hothouses.

When Canadians travelled to the U.S.S.R in 1972 for the now-famous series of Canada-Russia hockey games, it was unquestionably easy to spot them in the audience. A sea of drab, mirthless Communists sat like black pebbles in a rock garden riotously overtaken by florid cheeks, smiling faces and colourful parkas and toques. I am quite sure those Russians were startled and envious.

I watched the snow from my window today and counted my blessings. I am often reminded how little things make a difference. I was feeling blah last week, so I bought the Pier I mug above. It's a sweet happy mug, with great lines, wonderful cheeriness, and a rim that is neither too thick to be sloppy nor too thin to be mistaken for fine china.

A simple mug lifted my spirits. Not that a million dollars in the bank wouldn't do the same, but since that doesn't seem to be handy at the moment, I'll happily take my mug and consider what my whimsical reindeer and I might do together. We are the purveyors of dreams.

Another blessing -- I have so many! is the circle of grandmothers on my shoulders. I had three grandmothers -- my maternal great-grandmother, Celia, whom I called Grandma Kaufmann -- I lived with her for a few notable years -- my maternal grandmother, Edythe, whom I called Grandma Edie, and my paternal grandmother, Rebecca (Rivka), whom I called Grandma Becky.

Today, as the snow fell, I thought of Grandma Becky and her wonderful chicken stew.

She called it "russeleh" -- which is my made-up spelling for a word I think is akin to Romanian, but then, again, it could be some kind of Yiddish, or even possibly, a Grandma Becky word alone.

The stew is simple. As Grandma always said, "First, you need an onion."
(In fact, she used to hit me with a wooden spoon whenever I wondered what I should use to cook a dish, if it wasn't dessert. "What, are you crazy?" she'd  wave the spoon, "you use an onion! How can you ask?")

So, you slice a big onion, and some potatoes and lots of carrots.
Then you pour a "spoon" of oil into a stew pot, add your onions and cook until tender. Then, you add pieces of chicken. I use breasts and thighs, boneless.
You brown a little, then add your carrots and potatoes. I usually put the vegetables on the bottom and the chicken on the top.

Seasoning? Another story.
Salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder, sweet paprika. And the magic ingredient.
Now, my sister and I have discussed this at length because the secret ingredient is cinnamon and my sister thinks it's not really true -- it's just that one day Grandma probably used it by mistake owing to bad vision, or on purpose when she was all out of paprika. I like to think the cinnamon was deliberate. Either way, I use it and it's delicious and since she was Romanian, it seems totally reasonable to me that she'd use a spice like that.
I say this, even though Grandma was not averse to dumping a teaspoonful of jam into my coffee when she was out of sugar.... (By the way, I was taught that an ellipsis of three dots always ends with a period if no words follow.)

Anyhow, the real secret to this stew is the water you add -- just a little. You watch carefully as the water disappears into the potatoes and carrots, add a little more, until the veggies are tender. And, then you let the pot start to dry out so that the onions and carrots caramelize. You add a little more water, wait and watch until it glistens with oil, and you are done.
On a day like today, a humble "russeleh" fills the house with that homey warmth only found in tales of the "old country" when the snow was unforgiving, the sky was black with crows and bleak, but you had one another, you had a bowl of love to nourish your spirit.

I explained all of this to my gentile reindeer and I have to say, he liked the story. Tomorrow, as the snow continues, I shall tell him another.

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