Brown Sauce Broodings

As the light warms the early morning, I take the dog outside. The marigolds blaze in the corner by the driveway; the mums are just starting to blink at the world. Tiny red leaves from the burning bush spatter the dirt and the pavement, and in Sandy’s yard, a thick layer of crisp, leathery leaves stains the grass and seeps out into the street.

Thocka. Thocka. Acorns steadily pelt shingled roofs and metal car tops. A lone leaf detaches from Sandy’s tree and drifts, slowly, slowly, down to join its peers. And, Chicken, I think suddenly. We’ll have chicken for dinner.

I steer the little dog back home, where I take a container of chicken thighs from the chest freezer. And all morning, the picture of what dinner will be struggles and evolves in my mind.

While I’m doing laundry, I think about last week, when I took Jim to Riesbeck’s market. He ordered himself a fried chicken luncheon. When the clerk asked what pieces he’d like, he selected a breast and a thigh, which surprised me.

“I like the thigh,” he explained, “if it’s FRIED chicken.”

I do not really want the splatter and mess of stove-top fried chicken tonight; I’d rather dress it and put it in the oven. I remember a recipe from a cookbook I ordered before Jim was in school–ABC Cookery, a Gold Medal Flour cookbook for kids. I still have the book. There are instructions in there for oven-fried chicken; we once enjoyed that very much. Moves and schedules, I guess, relegated that method to the past, but today, I decide, I will revive it.

I find the slender cookbook and put it on the shelf next to the microwave.

So the entree is confirmed. We get in the car, running through the sudden, unexpected rain, to pick up Mark, to go to the post office, to stop at Panera and enjoy lunch financed by the last of a gift card, and I am thinking about sides. Green beans, steamed, I think, having had many, many green salads in the last four days. And maybe…rice?

But plain rice is missing something. Then I realize this would be a great day to try out a new sauce recipe.

********

I have been away for four days, and I need to cook.

*********

When we get home, I pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, open to page 54, and I read.

“Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” writes Julia Child, in collaboration with her French cooking comrades, “yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”

Good, I think, and I flip through the chapter. A brown sauce would be just right, I decide, and I read on, realizing I will need the whole afternoon for the task. But it is just 2:00, and I have time.

I run my finger down the ingredients list, and I take chicken broth from the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw. I pull out a carrot and an onion and a slice of ham (Ham! I think. That’s a surprise!) I get out my good knife, and I pare away the outer edge of the carrot and I peel off the papery onion skin. I chop and dice while oil heats in the heavy pan. I cut the ham into thin strips, and I dice that, too. Then everything goes into the pot, and it simmers and swirls for ten minutes, before I add the flour.

The flour melts into the oil, coating the sofrito, and I follow the instructions closely and obediently, stirring for another ten minutes. The mixture slowly turns a nice nut brown. I see what Julia Child means: this is not rocket science, but patience, rhythmic patience, is required.

I pour rich hot chicken broth into the pot, and I add two tablespoons of tomato paste and a handful of herbs; I whisk until the paste is melted into the mix, and then I step away to let time do its work. I get out the strainer and a blue ceramic bowl; I set out the pots for rice and green beans. I scoop out the rice, and I pour water into a measuring cup.

I wash the chicken and pat it dry, and I melt half a stick of butter. I mix flour and paprika and salt and pepper and a dash of cayenne. I slide each chicken piece into the butter, then dredge it with the flour. I put the pieces, bone side down, on a metal rack in the glass roasting pan. When I have placed the last piece of chicken carefully in the last space, my fingers are coated, fat with buttery clumps of flour dough.

I wash my hands and I stir the sauce, which is bubbling softly. It is brown and thick and aromatic.

I put laundry in and I take laundry out. I hang dress shirts and tuck matched socks into each other and I fold t-shirts into rectangles and put cold, wet towels into the dryer. I vacuum up dog hair from the carpet in the family room; shedding season seems to have begun in earnest. I answer emails and update my calendar, and I run downstairs to check the still-damp towels, setting the dryer for another cycle. And every fifteen minutes I check the brown sauce. I skim frowsy acid off the surface, peel away the skin that forms, and marvel at the alchemy taking place.

I have no idea what it will taste like. Some of the ingredients are totally unexpected.
But I trust Julia Child, who has never once led me astray. We simmer on.

********

I heat the oven to 425, and Jim comes in to inspect the chicken just as I’m ready to put it in to roast. “Hmmm,” he says, noncommittal; he will wait and see how closely ‘oven-fried’ resembles the fried chicken of his dreams.

I put the rice and the beans on when Mark pulls into the driveway. I grab oven mitts and pull the chicken from the oven; I use tongs to turn it, and Jim and Mark lean in to approve the crisp golden coating. Jim is being swayed. It smells really good, he says.

And the rice cooks up to soft and sticky, and the juices run clear on the chicken. I turn off the heat and I mitt up, hefting the big cooking pot and pouring the sauce into the strainer. “Strain,” the instructions exhort me, “pressing juice out of vegetables.”

I press the veggies. The little dog dances at my feet as I scrape them into a throw-away bag.

***********

The kitchen clatters: plates are pulled from the highest shelf and silverware from its drawer, water is poured, and serving spoons and tongs wrestled out of their jumbled space. The chicken is tender and perfectly cooked,–the crunchy coating, a triumph. The beans are crisp and buttery. And the sauce is thick and rich and savory,–more, I think, than the sum of its parts. It’s the magic of time and patience and good things combined.

We eat and we talk, and the chicken disappears; Mark and I split the very last piece. We scrape the juices from our plates, mop up the last bit of sauce, eat every morsel of sticky rice. A good meal, simmered and slow-roasted in the time provided by this post-work era. A good meal, providing the time to catch up, to family up, after having been away for four days.

We are reluctant to leave the table, but the little dog begins to dance, and a home-cooked meal offers up a sinkful of pots and pans to scrub, and there are chores to be done, plants to water, runs to be made. We are fueled and fortified, though.

There’s a metaphor, I think, in the making of a long-simmered sauce, in the surprising combination of sturdy everyday ingredients into a mixture once unthought-of. There’s an analogy in the thoughtful preparation, the dicing and the sauteing, the careful addition and nurture of the flour, and the long, slow, vigilant bubbling. There’s a lesson to be drawn.

And maybe tomorrow, I will draw it. But tonight I am lulled and comforted by the hearty food, enjoying the re-connection with the boyos, the lazy walk at dusk with the slow-footed little dog. We step back into the house, into a kitchen still rich with the smells of roasting and simmering. It is right, it is good, to be home.

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26 thoughts on “Brown Sauce Broodings

  1. oh this is like watching an episode of Julia Childs – and reminds me of the movie Julie and Julia – did you see it? I loved it! Could watch again. At first I thought to say to you – why don’t you post a photo of this yummy, comforting meal – and then by the time I got to the end – I thought – NO – she does not need to – her beautifully crafted words – her exquisite writing skills – perfectly painted the picture. No photo needed. You are extremely gifted. LOVE reading your words Pam. Love!

  2. It’s simply sweet and comforting how you take your reader through all the “feels” of an ordinary (which really means extraordinary) day. This is how life should be lived, with happiness in all the little moments. xx❤️

    1. Thank you, Lin!! I appreciate these lovely words. I wish I could be more mindful all the time of the joy of those little moments, but I do find the blog practice is one way to work on that!

  3. Kimberly Allen

    This morning was the second time I read this. It is a fabulous essay. I really enjoy the way you write about the process of things. I can visualize it all and enjoy all the images that come to mind as your creative process evolves. I too have found that I can give things time, like my pickle making. Or when I finally trimmed an evergreen after looking at the dead bottom branches for years. And then I found some grape vines that had wound themselves throughout the tree, saved them, and then one day literally saw them in a corner and wound them into a wreath , on the spot, and hung it between my two garage doors. I call it “living my days long and deep. ” I have the time in what you called the postwork era,, (love that term as again opposed to retirement!), to give things time, and to plunge into a new activity or explore an interest as much as I want to free to branch off as I long to. I pictured you living your day long and deep and having so much pleasure and satisfaction at its end. I am looking forward to the next story.

    1. I can see that grapevine wreath…love that.

      I love the chance, too, to pursue things in an unhurried way…I had so many projects, while working, that couldn’t be completed in one go because of time constraints….

  4. I love how almost without fail there is so often in your posts a new-to-me word or turn of phrase. This week it is ‘frowsy’. It reminds me of the german ‘Frau’ but having not checked meaning yet. Distracting from my own chores and evening meal prep while reading about yours. Always an enjoyable read. Lucky there’s no one relying on my culinary timekeeping and only me making myself hungry at thoughts of making a fried onion sauce one of these days. Not a meat eater personally and only cook chicken for my dog these days although not been cooking much at all for ages. I used to enjoy cooking and must get round to some! Bye for now and best wishes to you and yours 🙂

    1. Thanks, Colette! I hope your delayed dinner was grand. It’s hard to cook for ourselves, isn’t it? We should be our own first, best guests, but we don’t always have the time or inclination ..,

      1. Dinner happened much quicker than it might have with the added inspiration of reading your delightful endeavours with oniony sauce and I caught up reading your other posts while waiting to eat and with coffee after 🙂 I cheated and opened a packet of pasta-in-sauce-powder and added water, frozen spinach and mixed veg and only prep in the end was slicing a couple of onions. Microwaved, ready in 15mins, quite low-cost and only one bowl to wash up 🙂 I wasn’t struggling to cook for myself so much a few years ago but one thing led to another and nowadays I snack little and often and rarely hungry enough to make a proper meal. Having family around to cook for wouldn’t really make it more motivating – I’d probably manage to cook for them and go without myself as that was how I often managed previously for lacking energy and not eating the same types of food that they eat, such as meat dishes. and some types of meat cooking often quashes any appetite I might have had. I should make more effort really and I’m sure I’ll get there again 🙂

  5. The issue is always, “What do we do with the time we have?” If it were up to me (and, one day, I trust, it will be), I’d spend much of my days cooking meals like this one. The labor would not be work, and the results would be enough to satisfy me, and perhaps a few others, too. The more one practices what one loves, the better he gets at it, too. I spend a shocking amount of my time thinking about (and dreaming about) kitchen gadgets–choppers and processors and other steel-toothed wonders. My mother no longer cooks and I work from 8:00 to 5:00 during the week, so my sister does much of the cooking for us. Yet, I buy and use the appliances in our kitchen: an Optigrill (an indoor grill), the microwave, the oven. Your essay is read on a day when I am deciding whether to go to Williams-Sonoma next week and buy a Breville toaster oven (it can do everything) and an Instant Pot pressure cooker. (I yearn for some chicken & sausage gumbo and some spaghetti). I think, after reading your lovely, precisely-chosen words, next week’s raid is inevitable, and we will be better for it.

    1. I just reconnected with a high school friend whose retirement job is at Williams Sonoma. (I don’t think she always brings home a lot of money, but her kitchen is amazingly equipped!)

      Chicken and sausage gumbo…that is a great idea, John…

      When I was working, I always intended to spend the weekend cooking, but it became a chore and a grudged burden. I hope I never take the time to chop and dice and create for granted!!!

  6. Pam,

    I always love reading your posts. The cooking ones are fabulous; word pictures turn into drool while reading…!

    Thank you for this and so many others posts of yours that I love!

    Best,

    Jane

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