TAMPA, FLA. — Most of my friends have given up cooking. Typically I hear, "Who wants to bother anymore? It was different when the kids were home." Our children are also adults now, living lives and eating meals of their own choosing, but their absence has not altered my commitment to the kitchen. I've continued clipping recipes from the daily paper and sticking them under magnets on the refrigerator door, where they often stay for months before I try them.
Recently, though, I found myself wrist deep in spices for a savory Moroccan Chicken Stew, and I began to understand that the preparation of a meal involves a process that defines who I am. How can I give it up?
The recipe for this stew called for more ingredients than I've ever used in a single dish. The chicken had marinated overnight in a mixture of onions, garlic, fresh lemon juice, slices of orange peel, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, parsley, mint leaves, cumin, and threads of saffron. The following morning, I carefully placed the chicken pieces with their marinade in a large pot and added diced tomatoes, prunes, olives, chicken broth, chick peas, and salt and pepper. It wasn't long before heavenly aromas permeated the kitchen.
The cutting, peeling, slicing, dicing, and chopping had taken considerable time. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. My dinner guests would have been pleased with grilled steak and baked potatoes. I thought of my friends with their ready-to-eat meals in a bag, or restaurant reservations.
How many times had I come home from work, still in stockings and heels, and gone straight to the kitchen, where I pounded chicken breasts between layers of waxed paper, or stood over the hot stove stirring a tarragon sauce?
"You don't have to do all that," my husband had said. "You worked all day, too. I'll be happy with tuna salad." He might have been content with cold tuna, but I wouldn't have been.
As I watched the Moroccan stew simmer to completion, lifting the lid of the pot to sniff the final blending of herbs and spices, I understood why I so enjoyed cooking. A delicious, aesthetically pleasing meal was my gift of love to people I cared about.
"Why are you fixing his lunch for him?" my sister had inquired as I carried a tuna melt to our son, home from college. "Let him get his own lunch for a change." Our son did not seek advice very often, and had selected his own clothes, music, and girlfriends for years, yet he always welcomed a hearty meal. Here was the arena where mother-love still reigned supreme.
The very act of preparing a meal, especially dinner, appeals to the tactile part of human nature. Kneading dough, forming dumplings, basting, whisking, seasoning, and tasting involve one in pleasures that few other creative endeavors can match. All of the senses are engaged and the world beyond the bowl or pan slips unobtrusively away. In a sense, the meal becomes an emblem of one's desire to give of oneself.
Of course, there is some added glory to be gained from this most delightful of activities. Much as readers might hunger for an author's latest novel, or opera buffs jump to their feet as the soprano takes her bow, my own belt-loosening fans express their gratitude as I, the chef, nod modestly.
In the meantime, I envision roasting a succulent duck, fragrant with orange sauce, the recipe for which I cut out just this morning. Other images, with all the accouterments for the duck, spin through my brain, and I contemplate the silence at the dinner table as family and friends lick the last tasty morsels from their lips.
I guess I'm just not ready to leave the kitchen.
Moroccan Chicken Stew
1 large chicken cut into 6 or 8 pieces
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup, plus three tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves
2 cinnamon sticks (about 3 inches long)
Strips of peel (zest) from one orange
2 -1/2 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can chick peas, drained
2/3 cup pitted prunes, halved
1/3 cup small pitted green olives
1 28-ounce can of Italian tomatoes, drained, and chopped.
Rinse and dry chicken pieces. Place them in a large bowl; add the onion, garlic, parsley, cardamom, saffron, olive oil, lemon juice, and mint. (Reserve 3 tablespoons of mint.)
Toss chicken well to coat. Cover and refrigerate several hours, or overnight, turning the pieces occasionally.
To cook, place the chicken and marinade in a large, heavy pot. Add the cinnamon sticks, orange peel, broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered for an hour.
Stir in the chick peas, prunes, olives and tomatoes and simmer another 30-40 minutes.
Remove cinnamon sticks and orange peel. Serve with couscous, which can be prepared simply from the box, available in the rice section of most grocery stores.
Serves about 6.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society