When I was 18, after I’d been living in the French countryside for about a month, I was asked to make mincemeat for the family I worked for. “I’ll show you how,” said Vivian, the lady of the house, a tiny Englishwoman in her late 30s with a coppery, loose bun and dark red-brown eyes. “It’s an English tradition. My mother taught me.” In the kitchen, she stood at my elbow while I roasted and chopped beef heart and liver and mixed them with minced apple and dried fruit and spices and nuts, then bound the whole thing together with beef suet and a staggering amount of brandy.
A vegetarian at the time (for wholly experimental reasons), I found this whole exercise disconcerting but exciting. The resulting mixture looked like a psychopath’s murderous aftermath — small, firm chunks of organ meat interspersed with luridly moist nuggets of fruit and fleshy nuts — but it smelled, frankly, amazing. I packed the redolent, dense mess into a large glass vacuum-sealed jar and didn’t see it again until just before Christmas, when I baked it into two pies under the supervision of the indefatigable, perennially amused, cinnamon-colored Vivian, whom I had grown to adore.
The pies, when they came out of the oven, seemed magnificent. I couldn’t eat them, due to my vegetarian status, but I could smell them. I stood over them, filling my nose with the steam that rose through the vents in the top crust, a dark, rich smell that I remember now, 31 years later, as strongly as if those pies were right in front of me: after the heady brandy updraft came a fierce admixture of currants, apples, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, with pungent meaty bass notes.
Although mincemeat was nothing I’d ever eaten before, and although I couldn’t eat it then, I was comforted by its smell, which, although exotic and decadent, also reminded me (in my state of by then near-hallucinatory homesick longing) of cinnamon-raisin toast, that dessertlike staple of American childhood breakfasts — on winter mornings, I slathered margarine (it was the 1970s) on toasted raisin bread, then reached for the cinnamon-sugar bowl my mother always kept full and sprinkled a teaspoonful, then another teaspoonful, and then another final heaping teaspoonful, onto the hot “buttered” toast. The cinnamon-sugar got dark-wet from the margarine, and it all melted into the hot toast, and as I ate it the sugar crunched between my teeth and the raisins melted into my molars and the earthy, sweet, warm, zingy taste of the cinnamon made me half-crazed with satisfaction.
Cinnamon is the sweetest of all smells, the most innocent and adorable, but also the most vixenish, alluring, and tempting, the Lolita of spices. It goes particularly well – as befits its nymphet status — with booze, meat, and fruit, and is generally associated, warmingly, with various cold-weather holidays and occasions. It fills houses at Christmastime on wafts of mulled wine, elevates Thanksgiving pie to ambrosiacal melt-in-your-mouth debacles of post-feast gluttony, and warms all the various cockles – heart, loins, and psyche – on winter mornings in humble applesauce or oatmeal or muffins.
In Perugia, Italy, I had pears simmered in red wine with cinnamon; by the end of the poaching process, the pears had absorbed so much wine and spice, they had taken on a new identity – that mealy and wholesome fruit was now sluttish, intoxicating, and had become firm in the mouth, muscular as a surfer girl. In Oaxaca, I got sick on mole, I ate so much of it – I glutted myself on tender Mexican chicken bathed in glossy, complex chocolate mud spiked with cinnamon and so many other mysterious things.
I invented this recipe by describing it on the fly in the first chapter of my novel, The Great Man, in which a 74-year-old woman half-seduces a 40-year-old man with food, and then I made it in order to test my imaginative culinary instincts. There is no modest way to say this: the apricots melt into the broth and sweeten it deeply, the olives give it brine, and the almonds and cilantro and lemon bring it to life. And it contains cinnamon; it is, in a word, delicious.
On low heat, saute a chopped red onion and 5-6 minced garlic cloves in lots of butter (or ghee) or oil. Add coriander and cumin, about a tablespoon, yes I said tablespoon, of each (feel free to use already-ground; I like using a mortar and pestle, but some people don’t), a teaspoon of cinnamon, half a lemon’s worth of grated fresh lemon zest, a generous pinch each of saffron and cayenne, a teaspoon of paprika, 2 bay leaves, and a thumb-sized lump of grated fresh ginger. Keep heat low, stir constantly, and make sure nothing burns or sticks; add more ghee or oil if necessary.
When it’s all cooked into a commingled fragrant brown spice puddle, add a red and a yellow pepper, diced, a large carrot or two medium carrots, peeled and chopped small, a generous handful of cracked green olives, a handful of dried Turkish apricots, chopped small, one 15-16 ounce can of well-rinsed chickpeas, a cup of Pomi diced tomatoes, and a cup of hearty chicken broth. Bring to a gentle boil, then right down to a simmer, and cover.
Cut up 5 skinless, boneless chicken thighs and 3 breasts, more than 2 pounds of chicken in all, into big bite-sized pieces, the kind you have to cut in half to really eat, and grill them in a cast-iron skillet in ghee or oil till they’re brown just on the outside and still raw inside, then add them to the stew and stir everything together and gently simmer it, covered, for 4 1/2 hours. Add more chicken broth as necessary.
Saute and slightly brown 1 package or 2 cups couscous or, if you’re gluten-intolerant, quinoa, in 2 tablespoons butter, then cook according to the directions on the packet. Serve with harissa or shug, along with bowls of chopped toasted almonds, lemon slices, and chopped fresh cilantro.