This week marks my sixth week of apartment hunting in Berlin. I took a break the week between Christmas and New Year's and again when I was felled with the stomach flu. But besides that, looking for a place to live has become my new job. And, boy, do I hate this new job. Ooh! With vim and vigor. But who wouldn't? No one, that's who. I can practically see you all nodding your heads in agreement when I say that apartment hunting is the pits. Let me tell you, I'd rather be doing the most mind-numbing data entry in a windowless room than trudging up yet another set of stairs. But as I am 32 years old and I cannot live in my mother's apartment, pulling things out of a suitcase every day, for the rest of my life, I persevere. And I muse upon the fact that I've now spent more time looking for an apartment here than I did in all of my almost ten years in New York City. Ain't that a kick in the head?
Never mind! Instead of complaining, let's talk about nice things, shall we? Like some of the things that make me happy here.
1. Eating Nutella on fresh, yeasty rolls for breakfast. Who over the age of 10 still eats Nutella for breakfast? Well, me. It is delicious, obviously. And can I tell you something scandalous and wonderful? All of my pants are loose! Turns out eating Nutella on a regular basis is great for your waistline.
2. Buying tulips for peanuts. The proximity to Holland, I suppose, makes cut flowers incredibly cheap here. I bought a dozen tulips for my mother the other day, the fancy, frilly kind, for less than 5 euros. Peanuts! And just wait until the ranunculus (ranunculii?) start coming into stores. Fresh flowers every day!
3. Listening to NPR Worldwide on the radio, 104.1 FM to be exact. Hearing Renee Montagne's and Steve Inskeep's familiar voices from my old mornings in Queens during the day in Berlin is strange and lovely at the same time.
4. One word: soccer. Every week.
5. Despite missing my friends in New York and my old life and my awesome, awesome city, I feel peace in my heart here. I'm supposed to be here, even with this apartment hunt and the never ending ice and snow and the cold apartments and the gray skies. I'm home. And that feels good.
You know what else is good? Florence Fabricant's prosaically named Chicken Baked with Lentils. (That may have been the worst transition in the history of this blog. Forgive me? My artistic juice is currently on the lam, though fortunately my mojo seems to have returned.) Lentils and radicchio flavored with sage and cumin, chunks of ham and a splash of vinegar are the stars in this easy braise of golden brown chicken legs. So much more sophisticated than the name indicates, no? And yet it's still easy enough to work as a weekend lunch or a weeknight dinner.
The other day, after a morning of seeing apartments with my mother gamely in tow, now that she's in town for a few weeks, I decided we had to take a break. We needed a hot meal and respite from the icy streets. And I needed to focus on something other than apartments. My obsessive mind needed calming, needed to simply dice onions and boil stock, rather than have another conversation about renovation costs, look at another floor plan, or contemplate another compromise.
So I set about cutting up celery and onions, thin-slicing radicchio, browning cubes of bacon and chicken legs and trying to find my center, not to sound like a total yahoo. And it totally worked! I found it! Turns out it was in the kitchen all along. What a surprise, I know.
Basically, you make this deeply flavored base for the dish, using bitter radicchio, mellow bacon, herbal sage, a kick of vinegar, earthy cumin, and onions and celery for good measure. Then you stir in lentils and lay browned chicken legs (or just thighs, whichever) on top, and cook the lot in the oven for an hour, until the liquid is mostly absorbed, the lentils are plump and bursting with flavor, and the chicken is so moist and tender it practically slides off the bone onto your fork in one fell swoop.
It's not much to look at, I suppose, from the point of view of an aesthete. But as with a lot of peasant food, I think its beauty is special precisely because you have to look twice to see it. Once you do, it's hard to avoid. The gravel-like lentils, shining like little planets in the sky of the plate. The golden tones of the chicken, skin puckered and delicate as a lace shawl. The chunks of bacon, rosy-hued and glowing with flavor.
Florence says to serve this with mashed potatoes, but it was so hearty we found it didn't even need a side. Just a deep plate, a big fork, an appetite, and a hankering for comfort. Delicious.
Chicken Baked with Lentils
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound pancetta or bacon, in one slice, diced
3 pounds chicken thighs, 6 to 8 pieces, patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups finely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely chopped celery, about 1 rib
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups finely chopped radicchio, about 1/2 head, cored
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
2 cups lentils
3 cups chicken stock, more if needed
1. Heat oil in a 4-quart ovenproof casserole. Add pancetta and cook on medium until golden. Remove. Season chicken with salt and pepper and add, skin side down. Sear until golden on medium-high heat, working in two shifts if necessary. Remove from pan. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan.
2. Add onions, celery and garlic, cook on medium until soft and translucent. Stir in cumin. Add radicchio, vinegar and sage; sauté briefly. Add lentils, stock and cooked pancetta.
3. Return chicken to pan, bring to a simmer, cover and place in oven. Cook about an hour, until lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, but not all. Lentils should be saucelike but not soupy. Add a little stock if needed. Check seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed, then serve.