Sarah Maria Griffin: Eat Your Heart Out

I crossed paths with Jenn a dozen times before we ever spoke. In 2012, she worked in the office of the coffee shop down the road from my flat near Love Lane. Our matrix of mutual friends led to more than one, “You know Jenn, right?” and I, nodding, vaguely imagining her head of curls and freckles passing me in a flurry at the door of mutual haunts like 3FE or the Twisted Pepper.

When we eventually did meet it was in California. Her partner worked in the same tech goliath my husband did and we had a series of dates out in the heat of the suburbs. Sunnyvale. What a name to give a place. Houses and houses and houses – a train station. A brand new Target. A strangely empty Goodwill. A single street of empty bars and cafes. Very organised trees. Miles of empty sky.

We stood in the pool one day listening to the surreal sound of trains screaming by, talking about empathy. We were both very far away from home, in the paralysis of not having an office to go to, but having a lot of work to do nonetheless. Our lives were very quiet and very busy around the same time. In the strangeness of a new place and away from the grid of our Irish lives where we’d walked by one another time and time again, we became strangely aligned. The world had nudged us together for years and we’d breezed by – it took us to be at the furthest point of the Wild West to meet.

Before the pool, in the kitchen, I watched her produce a large, oval machine from a cupboard. I’d never seen a slow cooker before and didn’t understand how it worked. You just – leave it plugged in? For how long? And it doesn’t go on fire? It doesn’t – you promise? Nothing gets burned?

Nothing gets burned. She absolutely knew what she was doing, and I absent-mindedly sliced fruit and watched her work.

Jenn is from Texas via Maryland. She studied in Cork. An ethnomusicologist by degree, she’s now a coffee maven who jets around the world for coffee conferences and Barista competitions. There’s a softness and a quietness to her, something deeply reassuring about the tone of her voice. When she explains things to me I want to listen – I always feel like I have seven thousand questions for her.

Coffee is complicated – for a long time it all tasted like black water and heart palpitations to me. But it has notes and depth, and sense. Jenn explained that to me in the kitchen on another day. I got it after that. Jenn gets taste, so naturally, she’s a confident cook. There are allergies that serve as her guidelines, but she’s a dab hand with almond flour and coconut milk. Because she has rules, she creates big and surprising things within that. Rice wine vinegar in potato salad. In fact, as I write, she texts me to swear by oil and vinegar in a special chocolate cake recipe too: “Honestly, it’s all about the vinegar.”

Back in her kitchen, she poured chicken stock into the basin in the slow cooker, followed by an array of bits and pieces from the cupboard. I watched her fly through jars of this and that – not far from the image of a benevolent witch over a magic cauldron. Mustard, ketchup – sugar, all into the pot. Then chicken thighs, tender. I eventually asked her to list the mismatched but somehow perfect ingredients of this stock for me and kept them on a cupboard in my own kitchen on a post-it amongst fruit and vegetable stickers, for another eighteen months.

Hours later, after the swim and a trip to one of the gigantic warehouse supermarkets America is so fond of, after I skewered pluots and shrimp for the grill, after Matthew and Ceri and Jess and Stephen arrived for dinner – the chicken was ready.

The pluots and shrimp were dry and overcooked. It was the first time I had attempted anything with either ingredient. In fact, I had never even seen a pluot before that day, the strange sweet hybrid, the little monster of plum and apricot. I wasn’t even able to finish mine.

Jenn lifted the steaming lid from the slow cooker and the chicken and stock bubbled quietly, the scent biting and sweet all at once. She expertly moved the chicken from the stock into a bowl and pulled it apart with two forks – it was almost caramel. At this point, pulled meat was an abstract concept – something I’d experienced lightly and not paid much attention to, never mind trying to understand how exactly it came about. It had completely taken on the heat of the mustard and cayenne, but it was just below the edge of candied with sweetness too.

She spooned a few ladles of the now well steeped stock into a stove pot and mixed in more mustard, more ketchup, a little this, a little that, a healthy slosh of apple cider vinegar – and lo. Barbecue sauce with a rich honeyed colour. “Carolina Gold,” she told me.

Jenn came by my little house in Ringsend yesterday, still weirdly barren from all the moving in. It’s strange to see her here, but right, like we don’t have to ghost by one another half-strangers anymore. She brought tiny, powerful red strawberries from her garden in Phibsborough and a coconut vanilla cream (dairy free – take that, rules!) for dessert. We fussed over a pot together, recreating something of the Carolina Gold together. The nectarines in this recipe are a nod to the far away pluots and the chicken thighs are roasted in the oven – I don’t have an Irish slow cooker just yet, and maybe you don’t either.

I’ll include the recipe for the stock just in case you think of finding one: there’s something that feels like quiet magic about them. Quiet magic being, oftentimes, the best kind. 

The Kitchen Sink Carolina Gold BBQ Sauce (With Nectarines)

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 If this is the excuse you need to fill out your pantry with herbs and spices, let it be. You will use all the weird little jars and bottles listed below again and again – they each bring a certain level of depth to sauces and roasts. Don’t shy away from seasoning. Run with it. It’s great, like, I’m going to use some actual measurements in the instructions – be warned, but not put off. This recipe requires a lot of tasting as you go.

 Ingredients

1 Pound Filleted Chicken Thighs

4 Nectarines

Olive Oil

Salt & Pepper

Honey

 Turn the oven to 180 degrees. Pop the chicken into a baking dish, season with olive oil, honey, salt and pepper (be courageous with the honey, it makes a big difference).

Slice up the nectarines into discs and place them on top of the chicken – with a little more olive oil. Nectarines are a funny one – they ripen quickly then disappear. They should be soft, but firm. To be honest, even if they’re a little overripe it’s alright – the juice still does wonders for the chicken and once they’re baked they caramelize a great deal anyway.

 Leave the dish in the oven for around 20 – 25 minutes. Set a timer, but check it regularly – make sure the chicken is cooked through and the juices are running clear before serving.

 If nectarines are out of season or nowhere to be found, tinned mango does the very trick in a pinch and should be on supermarket shelves year round.

For the Sauce

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Salt & Pepper

Garlic Powder

Onion Powder

Apple Cider Vinegar

Worcestershire Sauce 

Ketchup

Yellow Mustard not the hot kind – lessons learned in the test kitchen: go for a standard hot-dog mustard, French’s or Colemans – nothing Dijon now, no need for that

Cayenne Pepper

Brown Sugar

Butter

Nectarines cooked with the chicken

Warm up the sugar in a saucepan, then slosh in around half a cup (4 oz) apple cider vinegar. Keep the heat low. Be generous with the ketchup, go for double this amount (a cup, or 8 oz) and stir in. Keep stirring at this point, you don’t want to let it sit for too long.

The mustard is where things get a little complicated – only you’ll know how much you want in the sauce. Go for a little less, maybe 3 oz. You can run by colour at this point – the sauce will be brown, but not too dark brown. Make sure to taste as you go.

Give it around two heaped tablespoons of brown sugar, and shake in some Worcestershire sauce too. Follow with the garlic and onion powders – be liberal with these – then the salt and the pepper. It won’t need too much salt.

Pinch in a little cayenne pepper for heat, but I mean really pinch – don’t go hell for leather on it or it’ll burn the whole mouth off you.

You’ll know if you want it sweeter or more savoury – the mustard and vinegar will bring that, and of course, the sugar will bring whatever sweetness you need. It’ll also take the edge off the heat.

Stir in the nectarines when they’re ready. Blend until smooth with a hand mixer, or leave as it is.

Sneaky bonusyou can add a slosh of bourbon if you fancy, too. I have a bottle of Bulleit, which comes in useful for this (amongst other things) (curing colds, you know). Jack Daniels does just fine too.

 The sauce can be kept over in the fridge for 2-3 days. In fact, if you prepare it without the chickens and just roast and grill some nectarines or mango, you can bring it along to a barbecue over the summer and like, seriously impress people. Store in a mason jar for added authentic southern hip. 

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Sarah Griffin is an Irish who has just arrived back in Dublin after 3 years abroad. She’s an Aquarian and a feminist. She has a masters degree in writing from NUIG and is only interested in video games that came out before 2005. Her current favourite foods are literally everything that is prepared on Irish soil. You can buy her nonfiction book about moving away, Not Lost, published by New Island Press, in all good bookshops in Ireland. Her YA debut, Spare & Found Parts, is coming from Greenwillow Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the autumn of 2016. She tweets (mostly animal pictures) @griffski.

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