Ever since I had kids and my international career came to an end, I’ve traveled the world without leaving my kitchen. I’m an inveterate collector of cookbooks and an avid tester of recipes, known for my ethnic dinner parties, unusual potluck contributions and weeknight dinners that deviate substantially from the usual family fare. When the kids were little, I would sometimes pretend we were in the country of the cuisine of the evening, giving everyone new names and encouraging them to speak English with foreign accents. It was fun and it saved me from the drudgery that caring for a young family can sometimes be.
Now everyone is older. The kids have traveled to some of the countries we’ve pretended to be in and to others we never even imagined. Our evenings are filled with the realities of homework, soccer practice and piano lessons and there doesn’t seem to be much time to pretend anymore.
Except on Thursdays. This fall, I have dubbed Thursdays European Chicken Night. Chicken – described as a blank canvas for the creative cook and the little black dress of the kitchen. They do sublime things with it in France, mostly involving cream sauce. While going through ten years of cooking magazines and reorganizing my substantial stash of cookbooks after a recent kitchen painting project, I unearthed mouthwatering recipe after recipe with chicken as the star and felt a sense of urgency that we had to try them before it was too late.
Week One: It’s September, school has recently started and there is an unseasonable (for Seattle) chill in the air. What better night to serve something the NY Times magazine (who adapted it from Chez Panisse Fruit) calls Poulet a la Normande and my French cookbooks confirm is indeed a classic from the Normandy region of France — chicken in a cream sauce flavored with apples and Calvados. The kids remind me that they lapped it up like kittens. I think European Chicken Night is going to be a success.
Week Two: It’s too hot to cook, much less think about eating chicken. I find a vaguely Greek recipe for barbecued chicken skewers but I am missing some key marinade ingredients and make poor substitutions. There is one odd ingredient in the recipe that we all agree is out of place. The meal, the ingredient and the recipe are quickly forgotten.
Week Three: This night will be unforgettable. I have found a recipe for Roast Chicken with Apples that comes from the town of Metz in the Lorraine region of France, where the first Jews settled in 221 AD. Though we are a secular household, I think this is the perfect dish to commemorate the Jewish New Year and I spend the day in happy anticipation. Reality check: one daughter comes unglued after school, my husband wants to know why no one ever told him about European Chicken Night, the daughter who hasn’t come unglued gets tired of behaving and I want to throw the chicken at all of them. I wonder if French women ever feel that way. But then, voila! Small miracle. We sit down and tuck into the sweetly cinnamon-flavored chicken and apples and everyone calms down. I tell them about the Jews of Metz and about the history of the accompanying pilau, a rice dish which originated in Persia and has traveled around the world. We happily reminisce about meals we have eaten in other countries. This is my little tribe and I love them. (I got this recipe from epicurious.com. It comes from Joan Nathan’s new book about Jewish cooking in France.)
Week Four is upon us. My husband and I will be like two ships passing in the night. He will return from a business trip only in time to eat whatever leftovers remain from ECN. I leave the next morning for a long weekend. He departs the morning after my return for another business trip, with more time in the air then on the ground. Everyone is battling a cold. Though my taste buds are craving the exotic, I know better than to impose my whims on the kids or to burden myself with an ambitious cooking project. So I think I will rely on a favorite standby – the Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Fresh Sage in Patricia Well’s book Trattoria. I’m sure Patricia doesn’t make this with defrosted Costco chicken breasts, but it doesn’t matter. There are some cookbook authors you can depend on no matter what and I love it when I can follow a recipe to a T. Anyway, if I weren’t a harried fifty year-old soccer mom in a rainy city with ravenous kids who will be gone before I know it, I might be dining peacefully in a charming trattoria in an undiscovered village in Italy.
I think it’s a night for pretending.