It might be too late for this one, but when the next head cold comes, I will be ready for it.
Of course, I say this based on an assumption that one can plan one’s own colds. If that were the case, I think I could have picked a better time than six days before Christmas to catch one. Then again, when is the right time to catch a cold? At LuthorCorp you could, and probably still can, hear the same note with carillon-like consistency: “I canNOT afford to get sick now. I have too much going on,” we all said, sniffling at our desks. We would all encourage the sick one to go home, mostly out of genuine concern for his/her health, but also out of concern for Good Old Number One ("I will be so pissed if I catch your cold"), and yet, when it was our turn to get sick, there we were, croaking into our phones and going through a box of tissues every six hours. Really, I should consider myself lucky that the viral cloud didn’t descend on me until after LuthorCorp gave me my walking papers—and yet, there’s still a stubborn noodgy part of me insisting that the time to catch cold would have been the week I was laid off, when I had the luxury of sitting at home in front of the teevee for a few days. Now we are in Full Holiday Monty; I have more preserves to put up, a birthday cake to bake for Bunni’s birthday party (which commences fifteen short hours from now), new baby clothing to finish knitting for an expectant relative (whose daughter is due to arrive any second now—but surely that means I have time to crank out one more cotton baby kimono!), and the usual round of packing/wiping down surfaces/checking to make sure the apartment won’t catch on fire that precedes every trip to visit the parents for a few days. This is not the time to go to bed in a pleasant antihistamine haze, only to have one’s eyes snap open at 2:30 in the morning, when the supposed 12-hour cold meds grind to a halt after only six hours, and yet, here I am, stuffed-up, quietly hyperactive in the way that one is when one is very tired but cannot sleep in a lying-down position, wondering if 5:30 a.m. is too early to whip eggs and sugar to a ribbon in the KitchenAid, and really, really hungry.
It’s my own damn fault, of course. I stayed in the house on Thursday, and felt the better for it. Had I stayed in yesterday, too, I might have been All Better by now. But of course I had to run across town, picking up our train tickets at Penn Station, buying ribbons for the baby clothing in the Garment District, riding across town to Grand Central Market to pick up vanilla extract to replace the bottle I had just discovered empty in the pantry that morning (why, again, did I put an empty bottle of vanilla back in the pantry?), and then riding uptown to the Enforced Cultural Death March that is FedEx/Kinko’s, to photocopy and mail my severance paperwork back to LuthorCorp. I have decided that the next time I wake up in the middle of the night and fear that time is passing too quickly, and that before I know it, I will be old and bent with weak and grizzled ears, I’m just going to leave the house and go directly to the first 24-hour Kinko’s I can find. I wasn’t in Kinko’s for more than 45 minutes, but it felt for all the world like I was there for seven years. Then again, it was probably best that I was busy, as the 21st of December is usually a tough day for me: Not only is it the birthday of my late, still-much-missed grandfather, it is also the anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am 103, which was one of the worst days of my life, as I’d thought a good friend was on that flight. (The relief I felt when I learned that she was not on the plane quickly gave way to dread and misery at the emerging details of both the last minutes of that flight, and of the poisonous conspiracy that engineered so much death and chaos.) Upon reflection, it’s good that I ran about like a maniac yesterday, even if I’m paying for it now. And of course I’m leaving out the best bit: I got to take a little rest in Bunni’s apartment, knitting baby kimonos while she baked spice cookies and generally fretted about whether everything would be ready for her party. (It will be.) And I came home with gifts, specifically some pears that Bunni received in a fruit basket, but would not be eating, as she is not much of a pear fan. Why, what a coincidence, I said.
Among the fabulous bits of birthday windfall I received this year was a book that really deserves a post of its own, The Prawn Cocktail Years by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham. As I told a friend recently, Simon Hopkinson (who also deserves a post of his own) is one-third of the triumverate of British Food Writers (Male) on Whom I Have a Serious Crush, the other two being Nigel Slater and Kevin Gould. In a perfect world, he would be all over Food Network, but considering that he has spent his adult life either cooking professionally or writing professionally about cooking, I should probably let the man have a little rest. He is my favorite sort of writer and thinker about food: He has near-encyclopedic knowledge of ingredients and technique, he understands how flavors work with—and against—each other, he is a genius at establishing mood and context, he is enthusiastic about what he loves, and he is noisily (but elegantly) cantankerous about that which he does not. If ever there were a writer whose books were stamped “Made Expressly for Bakerina,” Chef Hopkinson would be that writer. Lindsey Bareham, who co-wrote The Prawn Cocktail Years and assisted Chef Hopkinson on his superb, influential Roast Chicken and Other Stories, is no slouch herself, having written a food column for the Sunday Telegraph, among others, as well as two books I adore, A Celebration of Soup and In Praise of the Potato. (If I’m not careful, 2008 will turn into the year I write nothing but book reports about my favorite cookbooks.)
As I mentioned before, I stayed at home on Thursday, knitting baby clothes, torturing myself with the finest reality television basic cable has to offer, and paging through The Prawn Cocktail Years, an apologia for bygone foods of bygone restaurant genres, foods that are often reduced to culinary-joke status. Chef Hopkinson and Ms. Bareham argue that these dishes deserve better than that, and that it is not the dishes themselves, but rather poor-quality ingredients and techniques, that are at fault. Reading through their recipes, I’m inclined to agree. It’s easy to make steak au poivre look and sound and taste good; it’s a trickier trick to do with Scotch eggs (a staple of British sandwich shops and greasy spoons, consisting of a hard-cooked egg surrounded by a pork meatball and deep-fried), but between the text and the accompanying photo, I feel the vague stirrings of desire to have one for breakfast—or would, if only I weren’t in the thick of the Holiday Eating Season. The recipes pay tribute to long-lost restaurant genres such as hotel dining rooms of the 1950’s, gentlemen’s clubs, Expresso Bongo-era coffee bars, “Continental” restaurants and early trattorias, all with affection. There are recipes for Coquilles St.-Jacques and Swedish meatballs, coq au vin and chili con carne, profiteroles and oranges in caramel—and, of course, there is Pears in Red Wine, the one that made me sit up straight in my chair.
Once upon a time, in this very space, I’d written that poached pears are easy to take for granted. They’re easy to make; in fact, they’re often the first thing a novice pastry cook learns to make. They are often a staple of diet menus, for people who really want the tiramisu but can’t have it, or won’t have it without guilt. For some people, they evoke unpleasant memories of school cafeteria canned pears. This is a shame, for poached pears can be really beautiful, and really delicious, depending on the poaching medium (water, red wine, white wine, cider) and spices you use. Gale Gand has a recipe in Butter Flour Sugar Eggs for pears poached three ways: one in white wine, one in red wine, one in a syrup laced with grenadine, resulting in the most luscious hues you’ve ever seen. It looks beautiful, and I’m betting it tastes grand, but it will have to wait until I make the Pears in Red Wine from The Prawn Cocktail Years, which are flavored not only with red wine but also with a little creme de cassis, one of my favorite things in the world to drink, either on its own or in a kir royale. I read this recipe while I was stuck at home on Thursday, bored out of my mind with chicken soup and toast, craving something sweet but finding nothing but ice cream, which made my head hurt just to look at it. I drove myself to near-wildness, wishing I had pears on hand so that I could eat this dark, sweet, cold, splendiforous dessert. When Bunni left a message on my voice mail, asking if I would be interested in taking some pears off her hands, I could have married her.
My mind is made up. Next year, I’m going to buy pears at the market every blessed weekend. Next year, when the head cold comes, I will be ready for it.
Pears in Red Wine (from The Prawn Cocktail Years by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, Michael Joseph, 2006)
serves 6 (theoretically)
Note: The recipe is Chef Hopkinson’s and Ms. Bareham’s, but the directions are in my own words, paraphrasing the authors’ directions. The original recipe includes a strip of orange peel. Because I find that no matter how light a hand I use in applying orange peel, it seems to dominate every dish to which it is added, I’m leaving it out here, but by all means you can add it if it pleases you. The authors recommend serving this with thick cream or creme fraiche. If you have a cold, you may want to give the dairy a miss, but if you’re feeling fine, and you don’t eschew dairy, you will definitely want to add it.
1 bottle red wine (the authors recommend a Beaujolais, or something made with a Gamay grape; I love Cahors, and think it would be superb here)
150g (about 1/3 cup) granulated sugar, or more to taste
4 whole cloves
2 black peppercorns
1 vanilla pod
1 cinnamon stick
6 large pears, slightly underripe
3 tablespoons creme de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur)
Pour the wine into a nonreactive (stainless steel or enameled cast-iron) pan. Add the sugar, cloves, peppercorns, vanilla pod and cinnamon stick. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Cover the pan and remove from the heat.
Prepare the pears for poaching by cutting out a small triangular hole from the bottom, removing the blossom end of the core. Peel the pears, leaving the stems intact. (The authors note that by the time you finish peeling the pears, they will have begun to discolor slightly. You can rub them with lemon juice to prevent this from happening, but since you will be poaching the pears in a dark liquid, this step isn’t really necessary. If you poach them in something light, like white wine or the grenadine syrup in Butter Flour Sugar Eggs, you’ll want to rub the pears with lemon juice as you finish peeling them.)
Either stand the pears on their bottoms, or lie them on their sides, in a pan that will hold them all submerged under the wine. Strain the wine over the pears. Add a sheet of parchment paper or wax paper (I usually cut it to the circumference of the pan, then tear a small hole out of the center, to keep the paper from floating up off the pears), press it over the pears so that they stay submerged, and simmer for 15 or 20 minutes, or until the pears are tender. This should be a gentle simmer, not a fast simmer, and definitely not a rolling boil.
When the pears are cooked, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on their bottoms in a serving dish. Add the creme de cassis to the poaching liquid and simmer until the whole mixture is reduced by about a third. The liquid will look syrupy at this point. Pour the liquid over the pears and chill thoroughly. Serve cold, with thick cream or creme fraiche, and with the wine sauce divided evenly among the servings (although if you wanted to save some of it to mix into yogurt, I wouldn’t dun you for this at all).
Edit: After I hit the publish button, I remembered that something else happened on Thursday, and that ‘mouse would never forgive me if I didn’t share the news. My LSAT score came in on Thursday. Despite all of my fears that I’d tanked it even worse this time around, my score was much, much better than last year’s score, which was marred by a bout of either flu or food poisoning the night before the test that kept my head in the toilet, my brain wide awake and my nerves shot. I feel sheepish bandying around an actual score, but I will say that this year’s score puts me in the 84th percentile of test takers (as opposed to the 53rd percentile last year). So I won’t get into a big-shot prestige law school, and I won’t be destined for some rock-star law firm, but unlike last year, this year the odds of going somewhere look much, much better. And if they don’t...hey, I have a book to write.