The lists, The Recipe, and The Meal.
It’s a Sunday afternoon and I am home alone. And I am hungry.
This is when the list comes into play.
The first thing I do is go downstairs into the basement, where ignore the piling mess of things-I-will-get-to-eventually and remember that I have a bottle of wine in the wine rack that I keep on meaning to drink. I get to the deep freeze and peer inside to see what I need to use up.
You see, I keep lists on what I have in my freezer. Things get lost at the bottom, or get freezer burned and then you have to toss them out. So a few months ago, I decided to keep a list of every single item in my deep freeze, so when I can’t decide what to eat, I look at the list and find inspiration there. At least, that’s what is supposed to happen, and it generally does. But of course, things get added to the freezer, someone else takes stuff out without telling me, and so the list needs to be updated. Like right now.
Wow. There is a lot of pumpkin purée in here. I think I need to start a things- to-do-with-what-is-on-the-freezer-list list. But we all know what will happen to that list.
Okay, chilli, ground beef, a whole duck, chicken carcasses for stock, frozen berries. Ah-ha! Ground deer. Dinner.
The deer comes courtesy of my father who goes hunting every fall. He hunts to feed himself and his family, and he hunts to hang out with his friends. They all pile into our little cottage and eat all the things they don’t want their wives to know. Things that make their doctors pull their hair out. Like fried fatback. Yes, fried fat. Fat, fried in its own fat. It’s stupid salty and delicious. And because it is verboten, it is even more delicious and the entire cottage smells of salted pig.
The deer comes to me ground, in pieces, and if I ask nicely, occasionally on the bone. It also comes with hermetically sealed bags of rabbits, three to a bag. My father would be envious of the slab of fatback that lies next to it, which I bought in his honour.
I bring the deer upstairs, unsure of what to make yet. I dig through my cookbooks, which also contain their own lists: a list of recipes I would like to try. One week, I decided to go through every single cookbook I owned and make a list of every recipe I wanted to make. That way, my list-logic dictated, I would make the dishes listed, and not waste time looking at every single page, as I had already edited it to things I liked. It generally works. But that still means a list for every book. So there is obviously more than one list. In the case of venison, however, I own very few cookbooks that list it as an ingredient, so the lists are narrowed down to two.
But what else do I have in the house? I keep on seeing recipes that ask for tarragon, but I’m not walking out of this house to go to the store where I know they won’t have fresh tarragon, and I am not paying five dollars for a bottle of dried, anemic clippings. Next. I have potatoes. Carrots. Cheese. Milk. Yes, I can make this recipe.
The dish is Paté Chinois, a dish of ground meat and vegetables covered with mashed potatoes. The dish’s name is a little lesson in history. When chinese workers came to Quebec to work on the railroads, they were often poorly fed. One of the dishes they were served were bits of meat and scraps of vegetables with mashed potatoes. Cheap, filling and (somewhat) plentiful. It is something of a Quebecois household staple, something you can make at the last minute, or plan ahead and stick in the freezer, to be thawed and cooked in the oven by the kids when you’re out for the night. Similar to a shepherd’s pie, the dish isn’t something I ate as a kid. I have no real nostalgia for it. And Shepherd’s pie, is a dish I equate with cheap cafeterias , often made with instant mashed potatoes. No thanks. But there was something about this dish that made me want to make it. Maybe if I made it myself, it would be worth it. Hopefully.
Onions are chopped and cooked in butter. Then more butter. And salt. The deer is added. It’s good, but it needs substance. The spices come out, things are ground, flavours are added and dishes are tasted. Better. Potatoes are peeled and sliced and boiled. Milk is put in a small saucepan with a knob of butter and some dried bay leaves. The potatoes go through a food mill, the milk and butter are added and then again, the dish is tasted. Black pepper. Nutmeg. Yes.
The dish is assembled and placed into the oven to finish. It’s dark outside now. The kitchen is warm. The cat is noodling around my feet looking for wet food. No, your other owner isn’t here to spoil you. But I may give you a treat. The cat eats the nibbles from my hand as we sit on the floor, waiting for supper. Feeling generous, I give him a bit of wet food. I suppose I shouldn’t be the only one eating well tonight.
The Paté Chinois comes out of the oven, golden and crusty on top, little rivulets of liquid bubbling on the sides of the dish. The recipe tells me I have to wait twenty minutes before I dig in. Part of me is impatient, but then again, it’s Sunday and I’m alone. I don’t need to be anywhere and there are other recipes in this book I want to re-read for inspiration for later on in the week. I make a note of a recipe for beans and remember that I will be alone next weekend as well. Perfect. No one to complain about the smell of beans, either before or after.
Twenty minutes pass. The dish is plated. I sit in the living room, my feet up on the couch, a nice warm blanket over my legs, the cat sleeping at my feet. It’s snowing outside now. I feel like I’m in the middle of a Ruth Reichl (or Ruth Bourdain) tweet. There won’t be any leftovers when my better half gets home.