Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Bird is the Word

For the last week and a half, my sister's family has, perhaps ill-advisedly, left me in charge of their menagerie of pets. I've developed an intense, personal philosophy on the subject of "companion animals," driven partially by my aversion to the handling and disposal of their spoor, and also by my firm conviction that there is no animal alive whose lot would be improved by living under my roof. I lack the selflessness required to devote myself to the care of a creature that will never grow up and be able watch "Monty Python" episodes with me - and get the jokes. The occasional pet-care gig allows me to reinforce my views, which I like to think are solidly pro-animal but are probably just pro-laziness. Included in my temporary zoo this past week were the clutch of fowl pictured above. The photo was taken at the request of my lovely niece Helen, who is the birds' devoted mistress. She was so bereft while on vacation that she asked me to email her a picture.

My personal experience with these birds is that their personalities, such that they are, are insufficiently magnetic to cause any real bonding to take place. I've fed them chicken feed (looks like grey Grape-Nuts cereal), cracked corn (and I don't care...), organic greens and ground-up oyster shell. I've interrupted the same snowy-colored bird in the middle of the egg-laying process more than once, an experience not unlike opening the bathroom door when the biffy is already occupied. The chicken eyeballed me with just that sort of a look, with accompanying remonstrative clucking: "Shut the door!" I have also discovered the one rooster in flagrante with each and every member of its avian harem. The rooster is named Jesse, but I have determined to name him (privately, in my head) either Uday or Qusay, whichever of Saddam Hussein's sons was the more perverse. He does not relent in his vigorous lovemaking even when I gently nudge him aside to top off the water tank - just scoots aside a bit, nonplussed. He is one determined pecker.

The culinary silver lining here are the eggs - three a day, like clockwork, as fresh as they come. I already have a source for sustainable, fresh eggs free of all the crud that is found in the factory-farmed variety, so the additional bounty has got me scrambling (HA!) for recipes that consume copious amounts of egg. Spanish tortilla is a strong contender, as it uses the whole egg. Many egg-heavy recipes tend to use lots of whites (meringue) or lots of yolks (lemon curd, the most delicious substance known to man), but not both. I love a soft-cooked egg on toast for breakfast, but it's not the most efficient attack, egg-consumption-wise.

As of this evening, the little cluckers will no longer be my responsibility, but we'll be enjoying the eggs for a while yet. Although I don't find them to be compelling conversationalists, even in their native tongue (beak?), I have to respect their ability to produce one of the more delicious, versatile foods extant. Human eggs, by comparison, are microscopic and have no gastronomic potential at all unless fertilized, incubated for nine months, nurtured for eighteen years and then subjected to a stage at The French Laundry. So chalk one up for the chickens. And another, if you count coq au vin, which I do, but Helen most emphatically does NOT.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Team Pie

My niece Helen turned eight recently. She's hands-down the most appreciative diner who passes through my door nowadays. Not only does she effusively vocalize her appreciation for food, she backs it up by taking seconds and cleaning her plate. What's more, she will specifically request certain dishes in advance, which to me is the ultimate proof that Helen is not just being polite (unless she's a gastro-masochist of some sort and likes to intentionally subject herself to food she dislikes in order to boost the cook's self-esteem). When her mom asked her what she wanted for her birthday dinner, Helen's chosen menu featured chicken and dumplings followed by peach pie - both dishes I feed her family regularly. I go way back with chicken and dumplings. My mom used to make a pot of it on top of our wood-burning stove during the many epic wintertime power outages of my Connecticut childhood and deliver it to one of our elderly neighbors. I've found a recipe I like and serve it to my sister's family because it's one of the few things in my repertoire that reliably serves ten. The dumplings are highly coveted, and I've considered making this dinner in a wider, flatter pan to create more liquid surface area, thus accommodating a greater number of dumplings.
What you see above is a sequential photo-tableau of the dinner - the pot of chicken and dumplings, served at the table right off of the stove and usually as hot as magma. Afterwards, my niece Eileen lit candles on the pie (frozen back in August when the peaches were at their sweetest and most delectable) and I played the "Happy Birthday" song on my ukulele. You see Helen in the next-to final picture, radiant in all her rosy-cheeked ginger-haired splendor, preparing to tuck into peach pie in November. The pie itself retained its shape famously, not slumping into the hole created by removal of the first piece the way fruit pies do so often and so frustratingly. We all went home stuffed with sugar and carbohydrates and pleased with Helen's choice of a home-cooked meal over a pizza at some establishment that also features a video arcade. What can I say? The kid has good taste.