Golden slumbers fill your eyes

This time of year, I can’t stop sleeping. I seem to have been infected by a seasonal parasite, a sleep tapeworm or zombie virus that awakens at dark and renders me unconscious so it can wreak its insidious takeover of my person while I’m zonked out. Every day, I try not to give in, but I’m unable to resist. I start to nod off when the sun goes down, in mid-afternoon, no matter how much sleep I’ve had the night before (sometimes, these days, 10 hours). I have no choice but to stop what I’m doing, get into bed, and conk out, sometimes for an hour, sometimes two. It doesn’t matter what deadline is looming before me or how long my to-do list is. The parasite doesn’t care about my life at all beyond its wish to take it over.

When I return gradually to wakefulness from my near-comatose, dream-filled nap, at 5:00 or thereabouts, it’s pitch-dark night already, and I’ve accomplished exactly nothing since I fell asleep. I shake myself awake, stagger back to my desk, sit down and try to pick up where I left off, to reconstruct whatever it was I was doing before I blacked out. As I start typing again, my brain slowly coming back up to speed, I can feel the parasite curling into its lair somewhere in my skull, sated for now with whatever part of my brain it feeds on while I’m out.

Eventually, it’s time to cook dinner. Down in the kitchen, I foggily survey the contents of the fridge and cupboards. There are polenta, pine nuts, Savoy cabbage, a package of chicken breasts, red peppers, leeks… I yawn and blink, lose my train of thought. I know I’ll be asleep again by 10:00, but it feels so far away.

“What do you feel like eating?” I ask Brendan, who blinks at me from his computer, where he’s been fighting his own sleep parasite all afternoon, working away.

“I’ll cook,” he says. “What do you want?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “What would you make?”

“I don’t know,” says Brendan, clearly in the same mood I’m in. “What do you feel like?”

The truth is that there’s really nothing I actively feel like eating these days. I can’t even think about cooking or eating anything enterprising or challenging or surprising or difficult. My stomach wants carbohydrates. My palate craves nursery food. My soul wants warmth and quiet.

“How about baked potatoes?” I say.

“Perfect,” says Brendan.

During sleep season, there is nothing, nothing at all, like a baked potato for dinner, or lunch, or even, in theory anyway, breakfast. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make, for one thing: wash a potato, prick it, cover it in oil and salt if you prefer, or not, and stick it into a hot toaster oven for 50 minutes or so till the skin is crackling and the inside is soft. You can put anything you like on top: sour cream and chopped chives, or a fried or scrambled or poached egg with steamed chopped spinach if you want something green, or nothing at all but a little butter, salt, and pepper. A baked potato is starchy and hearty but not too big. It’s nourishing and comforting, but not filling or heavy. And it’s cheap.

Russets are traditionally the best for baking, but I’m partial to Yukon Golds. Their skin doesn’t give chewily between the teeth like russets’, but their buttery-yellow insides taste richly of the essence of potato and are denser, whereas russets’ innards are white, fluffy, blander, less flavorful. And a Yukon Gold can stand up to baking; its skin is thinner, but it crackles.

The other day, I reached into the cheese case at the supermarket and yanked out a small brick of bacon cheddar and put it into the basket without even thinking about it.  Its ingredients were unfathomably decadent: the usual full-fat cheese stuff, plus bacon and hickory smoke. I had never bought or eaten or even really noticed its existence before, but I neither resisted nor questioned the sudden urge to possess it.

At home, near lunchtime, without consulting Brendan, I stuck two scrubbed, pricked Yukon Gold potatoes into the toaster oven. While they baked, I sautéed a large minced yellow onion in olive oil and plenty of Worcestershire sauce, slowly, on low heat, so the onion softened and started to brown and caramelize but didn’t burn.

When the potatoes were done, I cut them in half, slid them onto aluminum foil, and smothered them in grated bacon cheddar. I stuck them back in to broil until the cheese was melted and bubbling and the whole kitchen was fragrant with fake smoke flavor along with the smell of browned onions.

Then I pulled them out and covered them in the onions and served them with a small bowl of kosher salt and the pepper grinder. We sat at the table and ate our lunch without speaking. The sun was already beginning to set. I could feel the zombie virus awakening in my head, turning sinuously with sinister velvet lullabye rhythms. The baked potato felt like an amulet, an antidote that would protect me while I slept.

Out on the wiley, windy moors…

Two days ago, we arrived here at the farmhouse from town. The wind blew around the house all evening and night in moans and ghostly howls. Dingo kept barking at it, and in the course of a night in front of a crackling fire, we watched Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” video, the one where she dances like an embarrassing 70s suburban mom discovering her inner Wiccan. It is an insidious earworm like few other songs, and it’s now stuck hard in my head, permanently, I fear.  

Yesterday was calm and very cold and sunny. Today is the first snowfall of the year. It’s powdered-sugaring out there. Happy December.

We finally ate the very last of Thanksgiving yesterday in the form of the rest of a red cabbage-spicy chorizo-white bean soup made with the second half of the turkey broth. The first half of the broth received the leftover pearl onions in béchamel, along with a chopped leek, a bag of frozen peas, and all the turkey meat I’d pulled off the bird and chopped before I put the bones into the broth. The soups were slurp-worthy and stood up well to the intensely savory, shimmeringly rich broth. The first was creamy, oniony, and filled with bits of green and chunks of meat. The second was purple and porky and full of soft, mealy beans, and we snarfed it, there is no other verb, for dinner, and then lunch the next day.

“I feel like Dingo,” I said at one point, looking up from my bowl with dripping jowls to see Brendan eating rapidly, with canine concentration.

Thanksgiving leftovers are the ultimate reward of hosting Thanksgiving dinner.  After I made the broth, I pulled another big bowlful of meat off the simmered bones and added the rest of the cranberry-walnut sauce to it. We mounded this insanely delicious turkey salad on hot toast with mayonnaise and chutney over the course of one lunch and two breakfasts, until it was gone. When no one was looking, I wiped the empty bowl with my finger and licked it. 

The rest of the mashed potatoes got turned into little pancakes fried in a cast iron skillet in peanut oil till they were crisp on both sides, then served with two poached eggs on top. The rich warm egg yolk soaked into the light, flaky potato and bits of browned onion.

The question arises in a vague but persistent inner voice once the fridge is empty again: what should we eat after all the holiday fare is well and truly gone? Those leftovers provided a helpful scaffolding for invention, and now I’m feeling lazy and uninspired. There’s nothing much around right now but some gluten-free pasta, a bag of frozen peas, some parmesan from a month ago, and aromatics. So tonight, we’ll have pasta with pea sauce. And there are couple of leeks in the bottom drawer for potato-leek soup, so that’s two days of lunch. But what about tomorrow night’s dinner? What about the next day?

I miss those old mimeographed school-cafeteria menu charts with their soothingly didactic regularity: Monday: sloppy Joes, Tuesday: tostadas, Wednesday: spaghetti with meatballs, Thursday, Salisbury steak, Friday, fried chicken… On days when there was going to be Mississippi mud cake for dessert, I’d spend the morning daydreaming about it in insatiable anticipation. Why was cafeteria milk always so fresh-tasting and ice-cold in its tiny individual cartons?

Anyway. Thanksgiving food eases the transition from fall harvest food to bone-warming winter stews and soups. It got very cold very early this year. The sun sets in the mid-afternoon. Yesterday, there were little ice balls in the lawn, and the streams had a top layer of ice. This morning when we woke up, there were lace frost curtains on the bottoms of the windows. The season of pot roast is upon us.

Stovetop Baked Eggs with Breakfast-Vegetable Stew

Dice an onion. Chop a package of baby Portobello mushrooms and one red pepper. Peel and smash and coarsely chop as many cloves of garlic as you like. Sauté all of it together in a large skillet in half oil, half butter until limp. Add a lot of chopped baby arugula, more than you think you’ll need, in two batches and cover as it wilts down to almost nothing.  Add half a box of Pomi chopped tomatoes, a lot of hot red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. Stir and simmer uncovered for seven minutes, then sprinkle parmesan cheese over it in a layer like an early snowfall. Crack four eggs one by one onto the surface of the vegetables and pour just a jot of cream or half-and-half over each egg yolk. Cover and let bake on medium-low heat until the whites are just barely set and the yolk is still runny. Serves 2.

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