of all the pages, of all the books that line the walls of this old house, page 82 in one of them is the one that looks like jackson pollock left his calling card.
it’s so splattered, it needs a wash-n-rinse, but the binding, i am thinking, might protest. might fall apart, instead of only being wobbly.
looks like there’s a big fat splat of bloody lamb juice that landed just last night, a cooking asteroid that crashed into the page. don’t tell the county health department but i’m pretty sure the crusted-over little bit of once-mushy brown-rice-and-broth is now, um, 17 years old. i even think there’s a fleck of dried-on apple skin.
ykkh, you’re thinking, that page is gross. downright revolting, you might even whisper to the neighbors.
in fact, it’s most delicious. and all the splatters attest to that. i do believe that you can rank the zeitgeist of a dish by the number of splatters on the pages, tucked away there on your bookshelves.
page 82 is the one that as a cooking coalition we love the best. we return to more than any other.
and the darn thing there is we do so usually only once a year. see, me and the man i married we do not do a lot of rhumbas in the kitchen. not together anyway. oh, sure we slather bagels. he scrambles eggs sometimes. on winter afternoons, he goes gaga for making chili the cincinnati way (that is, with as many carbohydrates in the bowl as you can fit: pasta, beans, onions, oyster crackers, and i am leaving out a few, believe me). i steer clear, far as i can run.
the one dance we do do, the one we return to every year, is the one page 82 refers to as “lamb and brown rice pilaf,” but we call it, simply, succinctly, rosh hashanah stew. that’s the thing we make together.
and not to brag or anything, but we make it rather swell. i chop, he stirs. i stir, he chops. last night he even volunteered to be the one to stay up to midnight on the cool patrol so we could tuck it in the fridge without melting all the cottage cheese.
when you start with five pounds of chopped-up leg of lamb, add buckets of brown rice, gallons of broth, you wind up with a vat that demands shelves be removed so it can spend the night sleeping in the ice box.
we make it in industrial-sized amounts because the only way to eat lamb stew is in a crowd. a crowd that every year gets big and bigger. tonight i think there’re 85. only kidding. but it almost feels that big.
we’ve been eating lamb stew since our beginning, and that, of all the ingredients, is the one that makes it most delicious.
a hundred years ago, the day after the night that my beloved hauled me over the threshold (he really did, up and grunted, i don’t say these things so lightly) just home from our mountain-hiking honeymoon, i rubbed my aching legs and my brand-new husband set out to stir tradition.
he yanked some book right off the shelf, a book i’d given him and inscribed before i knew i’d be his bride. the jewish holiday cookbook, it is simply called. and i wrote something to the effect of how i hoped his home would always be warm and glowing at its heart. i did not think i would be in that kitchen, back in the days when the jewish-catholic hurdle seemed too high to climb.
i can’t recall why he landed on 82, the page that starts and ends it all. perhaps it was the cinnamon and apples. or the allspice and onions. or the gobs of lamb.
but i do remember, as if this very day, him standing there at the teeny-tiny table chopping, chopping, chopping. i do recall the landlady coming to check on all the racket.
and that, as you so deeply dearly know, is what makes every thing worth cooking once a year so sweet you’d lick the spoon, the pot, even the pot lid.
page 82 is no longer just a way to get a pot onto the table. it is not some step-by-step follow the bouncing lamb.
it is, in all its splattered glory, the essence of who we are: catholic girl gives jewish cookbook to boy she thinks will cook in someone else’s kitchen. but instead he cooks from it on the day their life at home begins. for years and years now it’s been ladled onto plates at tables that have moved from house to house to house.
there’ve been babies at those tables, now big enough to shave. and pregnant bellies that could barely stand the smell. my mama’s sat there, bald from chemo once, not so hungry that hard year. there’ve been friends who’ve moved. and one who died. there’ve been friends who came as couples, now are split apart. and sometimes, like tonight, we welcome back those who’ve been away, far far away, far too long.
it’s a coming-and-a-going sort of dish, the kind that holds a life together.
the ingredients, year after year, are all the same. but the story of the serving is always slightly changed. that’s what makes it rich, the richest stew i know.
and that’s the point of all the splattered pages: they hold the journey of your life. you crack open the book, to a page that needs no marker. and all the stories spill right out, there beside the wooden spoon. you are not just filling the house with cookstove perfume, the alchemy of meat and spice and autumn fruits. you are crowding the kitchen and the dining room with all the souls from all the years.
it brings us back, it carries us forward. that’s the point of splattered pages. the stuff that sticks there, it’s not just flecks of rice and old dried apple; it’s our hearts, and all of those we’ve loved.
and here, so you can do the same, page 82, not quite so splattered.
blair’s lamb stew, a recipe…..
from “the jewish holiday cookbook: an international collection of recipes and customs,” by gloria kaufer greene
6 Tbsp margarine
2 lg onions
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
4 celery stalks, chopped
3 cups long-grain brown rice
2 to 3 pounds boneless lamb, trimmed of fat and gristle, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
6 cups beef broth or bouillon
2 15- to 16-ounce can chick peas, drained
1-1/2 cups dark or light raisins
1 apple, chopped
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp black pepper, preferably freshly ground
1/4 tsp salt
in 5- to 6-qt pot or dutch oven, over medium high heat, melt the margarine; then cook onions, garlic, celery, stirring till tender.
add rice and cook, stirring, one minute longer.
then add lamb cubes, and stir till brown on all sides.
stir in broth, chickpeas, raisins, apple, parsley, allspice, cinnamon, thyme, pepper and salt. bring to a boil, then cover and lower heat. simmer covered, for about 45 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed.
toss with a fork before serving.
makes about 8 servings.
invite people you love. lick the plate.
note: we use more garlic, apple, raisins and lamb than called for, just to make it yummier.
okay, friends, that’s a long one. but before i go, one simple question: what’s the dish in your house that tells your whole life story? the one you come back to every year, or once a week?
because my questions never end, do you have a cooking partner? one you share the chopping with? tell us of the rhumbas in your kitchen. i wish we did it more. we always say we will. tell us what it’s like. please.