Around this time every year, the mountains circling my suburb catch fire. Our October rain is ash and ember. There’s a patch of white pines north and west of here that has not, for many years, lost its blackness, its burn. In 2008 a fire that started in the Santa Susana Mountains burned south and west until it blackened the tennis courts across the street from my parents’ house, where it stopped.
More than heat or wind or drought or earthquakes, fire is what I think about when I think about California. But today it’s raining, and this morning I lit a fire of my own with false wood, and from my greenhouse of an office I can look out and behold a likeness of winter.
But only a likeness. The suburbs get me down, reader. We deal in likenesses here. The first sign of trouble was over the summer. On the Fourth of July my mother and I stood at the top of a nearby hill and, hard as we looked, we could not pick out her house from the countless ubiquitous same-looking others. Happiness is a lot of things. But one way of feeling happy is to be able to look around and to know, with absolute clarity, where you are.
This is why we love to travel, if we love it. This is why travelers rage when they come to Los Angeles and find here only a maze of interstates. Setting matters. Beauty matters. So when I tell you about the suburbs, I must tell you about this: this almost existential placelessness, which in me registers as a kind of mourning.
But then there’s this… this stew, which probably upsets the funereal mood I’ve established, because it is warm while I am cold and it is not placeless or soulless or sad but may in fact be the cure for the searing kind of existential sadness one may fall under the spell of when one lives for a spell in the suburbs.
I had the meal that inspired this one ten years ago. It was in a German city, I don’t remember which–Hamburg? Frankfurt? Wiesbaden?–but I remember the cook was Portuguese, the light was a pulsing sodium-lamp orange and there was only one thing to order, so we all ordered the same thing. It is a testament to the quality of that meal that everyone present would, one day, attempt to replicate it.
What we ordered was a small hen, roasted whole, with silken potatoes and Spanish onions and a golden broth of chicken fat, lemon grass, tomatoes and curry. When my mother tried to make it years later, she took the flavors she remembered of that Portuguese bird and let them stew in a stock pot. The result was a robust, spicy stew of chicken thighs, potatoes and onions, bolder and thicker and spicier than the original. We happily ate it for days over white rice. For years my Portuguese chicken was quite a lot like my mother’s, until suddenly it wasn’t, because it was better.
As for the suburbs? Well, reader, I’m sorry but I think I hate them. I am stubborn on this front.
Only, sometimes, if the food is good enough, it can make you forget where you live.
Give me prudence, by god, and peace. But not yet.
Portuguese Chicken Stew
(makes one pretty huge pot of stew)
– 2 game hens
– 4 lbs. russet potatoes
– 3 medium Spanish onions, sliced
– 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
– 2 tbsp lime juice
– 4-5 stalks lemongrass, chopped
– 1 24-oz. can tomato sauce
– 1/2 cup Riesling
– 1 tbsp curry powder
– 1/2 tbsp turmeric
– 1 tsp cumin
– 1 tsp smoked paprika
– 1/4 tsp or more cayenne pepper
– 1/8 tsp allspice
– Olive oil
– Kosher salt
– Fresh ground black pepper
Wash and peel the russet potatoes and chop into large chunks. Place chopped potatoes in a large bowl and soak in salt water. This is very important: if you skip this step, the potatoes will be starchy and flavorless. I’ve made that mistake before, and never will again. Set aside.
Now butcher the hens. I am no expert in disassembling poultry, but this is what works for me. First, you want to flatten each hen by removing the back and breast bone. Set the hen on its, uh, butt, and run a sharp knife down each side of the backbone to remove. Split the bird open, and make an incision at the collar bone, near the top of the hen, between the wings. With your hand, remove the breast bone and cartilage. The hens should lay flat.
Now it will be a breeze to separate the legs, thighs, and wings. Split each breast in half. From each bird, you should harvest eight pieces. Season the chicken liberally on both sides with Kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Heat olive oil in a large pot over a high flame. Pat each piece dry with a paper towel before setting it, skin-side down, in the hot oil. Sear each piece about three minutes on the skin side, and remove to a plate. You’ll have to do this in a few batches.
When the chicken is done, brown onions in the chicken fat for about ten minutes, until tender. Deglaze the pot with Riesling, making sure to scrape all the brown bits off the bottom and sides.
Now, the easy part. Place chicken back in the pot, along with potatoes, chopped lemongrass, tomato sauce, and spices.
Fill the pot to within an inch of the top with reserved potato-soaking liquid. This will salt the stew, and the starch in the water will help thicken it, so you don’t need to add flour or corn starch. Allow to simmer for an hour. Before serving, stir in fresh chopped cilantro and lime juice. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve piping hot over rice.