-31 DEGREE WIND CHILL!!!.....
-31 DEGREE WIND CHILL!!!”
–Recent post from my son’s Facebook page
My son, Robb, moved to Brattleboro, Vt. in November. He’s been living and working in Boston for the last several years, so New England winters aren’t exactly a new experience for him. But folks in Vermont – which was described by Rosemary Clooney in the classic 1954 film, White Christmas as “America’s Snow Playground” – and other New Englanders seem to take special pride in coping with, surviving and even relishing their harsh winters.
Probably overall those New England winters are harsher than central Illinois’. But I had to tell Robb that he’d survived extraordinarily worse wind chills, right here in Springfield.
It’s hardly surprising he didn’t remember. Robb was five and his older sister, Anne, was nine. On that particular day, Sunday, Jan. 20, 1985, I was more than three weeks past the original Christmas Day due date of my third child. These days, obstetricians rarely let pregnancies go that long, but things were different then.
So there I was, as big as a house, too awkward to do much, and more than a little frustrated. There was some snow forecast that night, but the big news for forecasters was the promise of extraordinary wind chills: -60+ below zero for central Illinois; Northern Illinois could see wind chill factors as low as -80 below.
Clearly, emergency planning in case I went into labor was in order. The obvious first step was to send our children to spend the night with their grandparents. We discussed whether it was best to put the car in the old one-car detached garage that had come with our old Spaulding Orchard farmhouse, park it closer to the back door or down at the end of our long driveway in case snow drifts made it impassible. Peter studied maps, trying to figure out the quickest and safest routes to St. John’s – something that neither of us had ever considered even remotely necessary.
We decided to heat up a couple spare electric blankets, both to warm me while getting into the car and help keep me and our incoming baby warm if we had car problems. As we bundled up the two kids for their trip to the grandparents, I said to Peter, “Hey, on the way back home, why don’t you pick up a video?”
I don’t know if Peter’s video choice was intended to heighten the drama of that night’s record low wind chills. He says not. But Peter has a talent for picking out quirky (though not pornographic, I hasten to add) films, especially foreign films that look intriguing but are sometimes intentionally unintelligibly obscure – and I’m not talking about the subtitles. That night he hit the ultimate: a 1982 film, Flight of the Eagle, starring Max von Sydow. Not that it was at all unintelligible. Flight of the Eagle recounted the true story – in Swedish, with English subtitles, of course – of three Swedish explorers who, in 1897, had the brilliant idea to fly over the Arctic Circle in a hot air balloon. (One reviewer called it “ballunacy.”) The balloon crashed after only a couple days, and the hapless explorers perished.
So there we were in our living room on that unbelievably frigid night, huddled under blankets while the wind howled ferociously outside, as well as through the cracks and crevices in our 100-plus-year-old farmhouse’s walls, while we watched more howling winds and frigid temperatures destroy the intrepid explorers’ dreams and eventually their lives. At times, Peter and I weren’t sure whether the screaming winds we were hearing were from outside or the video.
Toward the film’s end, Peter and I were betting on whether or not the trio of explorers would resort to cannibalism, but journals eventually found next to their frozen bodies gave no such indication, although apparently, dead or alive, they’d been eaten – at least partially – by polar bears.
Thankfully I didn’t go into labor that night; our youngest daughter, Ashley was born 10 days later, on Jan. 30. That scary night is now a memory Peter and I laugh about.
I adapted this recipe from the late, long time New York Times reviewer and food writer Craig Claiborne’s Cooking With Herbs and Spices. It’s one to always return to in blisteringly cold blustery weather. I’ve been using both Claiborne’s outstanding book and this delectable recipe for decades.
- 2 leg/thigh chicken quarters, or 4-5
- Chicken thighs, boned, or boneless, as you prefer
- 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
- 6 tsp. sweet Hungarian paprika, divided
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper, or more to taste
- 1/4 c. bacon fat, preferred, or vegetable oil
- 1/2 c. finely diced onion
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 1 1/2 c. chicken stock
- 1/3 c. strong coffee or espresso (instant is fine)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2-3/4 c. sour cream, preferred, or thick
- Greek-style yogurt
- Poppy seeds for garnish, optional
- Egg noodles or spaetzle for serving, optional
If you choose to bone the chicken, cut it into 2 or 3 pieces per leg or thigh.
Place the flour, 2 teaspoons of the paprika, salt and the pepper in a paper bag. Shake the bag to combine the ingredients, then add the chicken pieces and shake the bag to coat the pieces with the flour mixture.
Heat the fat or oil in a small skillet or heavy casserole with a tight fitting lid over medium-high heat. Shake any excess flour from the chicken pieces and add a single layer, being careful to not overcrowd the pan. Brown on all sides, then remove from the pan.
Pour off any excess oil from the pan, return to the heat, and add the onion and garlic. Stir to coat with the fat from the pan bottom, and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf, chicken stock and coffee, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Return the chicken to the pan, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low so that the liquid is at a bare simmer, and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.
When the chicken is done, check the sauce. It should be somewhat thickened. If it looks too thin, remove the chicken from the pan, increase the heat to medium-high, reduce the sauce until slightly thickened, and then return the chicken pieces to the pan. Remove the bay leaf. This can be made ahead to this point. Refrigerate until needed and then return to a simmer before proceeding.
Remove the pan from the heat and gently whisk in the sour cream or yogurt. (Be careful: Both the sour cream and yogurt will curdle if boiled.) Serve immediately over noodles or spaetzle. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if desired.
Add 1/2 lb. quartered button mushrooms to the chicken paprikash. Sauté the mushrooms in the skillet or casserole over high heat in 2 T. additional fat or oil until browned before browning the chicken pieces. Remove the mushrooms from the skillet and reserve. Add them to the casserole after the chicken has completely cooked for the 30 minutes, then proceed as above.
For a vegetarian version, replace the chicken with 1 lb. white or brown (cremini) mushrooms, quartered or cut into 6 wedges, depending on their size. Use vegetable stock in place of chicken stock. Proceed as above. Serves 2.
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