My mother and sister Susan and her husband Alan and their two sons are all in New Zealand right now, visiting my other sister Emily and her husband Campbell and their four kids for Christmas. They’ve been emailing me photographs of themselves. I send back photos of Dingo and the snowy view outside the farmhouse window. Not for the first time, I have been offering heartfelt thanks for the existence of the Internet, which prevents me from ever feeling isolated or cut off, no matter how deep in the countryside I may be.
Winter is my favorite time to be here. There is no better place to work productively, day after day, free of social obligations and distractions. Brendan and I sit writing at the kitchen table while Dingo guards the house on his window seat, ears pricked, eyes trained out the window. Outside, the world is muffled and still. Bare black branches drip in an icy rain. Fog hangs over the lake and shrouds the mountains. Snow lies in a thick blanket up to the first rung of the fences. The sky hangs low over the hemlocks on the ridge.
Every day we’re here melts into the next with a comforting repetitiveness that feels like childhood, like vacation, like being sealed off from the world in a little bubble. Our days have a reassuring sameness to their rhythms: we get up, feed Dingo his breakfast and let him out; make coffee; drink coffee and write emails and read the news; take a long walk at 11; work; eat leftovers for lunch; write and read until 6; open a bottle of wine; feed Dingo his dinner; cook; eat; watch “Jeopardy!”; build a fire and play “It Was a Dark & Stormy Night;” let Dingo out one last time; go to bed and read aloud from a book we both loved as children, currently “The Secret Garden;” go to sleep.
But two nights ago, the whole household was up and awake at three in the morning. We humans woke up first. Brendan went downstairs. Optimistically, I tried to lull myself back to sleep just because it seemed like the thing to do, but then it dawned on me that it didn’t matter if I got up now and then slept all morning. Suddenly hungry, I put on my bathrobe and went down to see what was happening.
Brendan was sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, writing. He’d built a little fire, and the room was dark and warm. Dingo wasn’t in bed anymore, either; he lay on his window seat. He looked at me, thoroughly befuddled: why was it time to start his workday when it was still dark? Where was his breakfast?
I curled up at one end of the couch and started reading yet another memoir of life in Maine, a genre I’m unapologetically addicted to. (Who knew there were so many, and who would have suspected that they’d all be so riveting?) I was instantly sucked in. The room was aglow with firelight. Brendan tapped away at his keyboard. The logs crackled. Dingo snorted gently to let us know he was still wondering where his breakfast was.
Outside, it was absolutely dark. Inside, we were three solitary wakeful beings marooned together in a pool of light and warmth in a vast, sleeping landscape.
I suddenly remembered that I was hungry. Wee-hour hunger isn’t like other hunger, there’s no meal associated with four in the morning, so there’s no particular food you automatically think of to fill it. After pondering for a while, I realized I wanted a piece of toast slathered in butter and honey: nursery food. I brought Brendan one, too. Dingo got some venison jerky.
I read the whole book in three hours, then, yawning, my eyes almost shut, I climbed the stairs, got back between the flannel sheets, pulled the down comforter over my head, and fell into a deep sleep. I awoke to soft, snowy, late-morning light coming in the dormer windows and the smell of coffee.
Chicken Thighs with Lentils and Braised Cabbage
The other night, our provisions were getting low, but there was enough to throw together some sort of supper: a package of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, a small red cabbage, some onions and fresh dill and a box of clementines, along with some odds and ends in the cupboard and pantry.
I took out the small, nearly empty tub of duck fat I’d splurged on at Thanksgiving and melted a tablespoon of it in the big skillet and browned a sliced onion while I cored and chopped the cabbage. I added the cabbage to the skillet and let it soften for ten minutes while I melted another tablespoon of duck fat in a cast iron skillet and seared then cooked the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
That seemed like a good start, but it wasn’t going to make a meal. I rinsed the cup of du Puy lentils I found in the cupboard then cooked them in two cups of chicken broth. Then I zested three clementines and juiced what was left of them. I minced all the dill, about half a cup.
I added a cup of balsamic vinegar mixed with red wine to the cabbage and let the liquid cook off. Then I added half a cup of golden raisins, the lentils, the zest and juice, stirred it all together, and nestled the thighs in. I covered this fragrant, vaguely French-ish dish and let it cook for a while. I deglazed the chicken skillet with more red wine and stirred up all the fat and browned bits until I’d made a glossy pan gravy. I poured it over each piece of chicken in the pan, sprinkled the minced dill over everything, and then it was time for dinner.
It was delicious, and oddly coherent, sweet with raisins and fruit and savory with meat and rich with duck fat, the cabbage velvety, the lentils toothsome, the dill piquant. Like most cupboard suppers, it was better than a lot of other things I make on purpose.