Tuesday evening I came home from work, poured myself a glass of wine, and began to read. I was tired, so I grabbed the first book I saw, the only book I could reach from the kitchen table, which happened to be a cookbook: Nigel Slater’s Tender.
I had cooked from this handsome book only a few days before, when I made dinner for my mom and her boyfriend, Charley. (An aside: I feel strange continuing to describe Charley as my mother’s “boyfriend.” They have been together ten years now, lived together for 8. He helped to take care of me after the car accident. He was there when I moved to New York City, to California, to Boston. I wrote about him in my book. He’s seen me at my worst, and my best. From now on he shall be, simply, Charley.)
I cooked the simplest of dinners, one that took barely any time to throw together, but filled the house with a sweet and salty aroma, a meaty smell, a hungry smell, a scent that promised satisfaction.
I made Slater’s “Sausage and Pumpkin Mash,” and the recipe title pretty much sums it up. Sausage, roasted with a sauce made of mustard, honey, and lemon. Pumpkin, (or, in this case, butternut squash), steamed and then mashed with butter, salt, pepper, and (my addition of) a glob of sour cream. I served the dish with an arugula salad dressed in a simple lemon vinaigrette.
You see, two weeks ago Charley went into surgery to have his hip replaced. It was a quick and successful surgery. He was home within days. Charley is a stalwart fellow, and is doing okay. But a hip replacement is big, recovery happens slowly, and he has been in pain. I’ve been cooking for him and my mom a lot.
I will admit that it’s been strange to be in that house with someone who is recovering from a serious injury. Seven years ago I was hit by a car and recovered from my own injuries there, too. Months and months of slow-motion healing, lying in the bed we hoisted from the second floor to the living room, nursing my broken pelvis and fractured skull, the knee surgery that left a 9-inch scar snaking down the side of my leg. I remember feeling like a shell of a human, a cracked shell at that. I wasn’t sure I would ever be okay.
Being in that house now brings me viscerally back to those months. Remembering the mechanics of pain pills, the engineering required to climb the stairs with only one working leg. Simply the sound of Charley’s crutches moving along that particular wooden floor echoes in my ears and memory, both.
Anyway. After work, Tuesday, I poured myself a glass of wine and began to read. Slater begins this book by writing about lists. He keeps lists. Lots of them. Some on paper. Some in his head.
“One list that has remained in my head is that of favorite scents, the catalogue of smells I find particularly evocative or uplifting. Snow (yes, I believe it has a smell), dim sum, old books, cardamom, beeswax, moss, warm pancakes, a freshly snapped runner bean, a roasting chicken, a fleeting whiff of white narcissi on a freezing winter’s day.”
Yes, yes, yes.
He goes on:
“High on that list comes cress seeds sprouting on wet blotting paper. It is a smell I first encountered in childhood, a classroom project that became a hobby. Cool and watery, fresh yet curiously ancient, as you might expect from a mixture of green shoots and damp parchment, it has notes of both nostalgia and new growth about it. Sometimes, when I have watered my vegetable patch late on a spring evening, I get a fleeting hint of that scent. A ghostlike reminder of how this whole thing started.”
I immediately copied those passages down into a notebook, the scribbly old notebook I keep handy to write down just such things. It felt very important on Tuesday night. It still does, though I’m not sure why. Something about scent, of course. Scents that bring us back. That move us forward. Something about lists. The lists Slater writes. The lists I write, have written, the ones I keep in my head. Something about remembering who I was, where I was, what brought me there. Something about nostalgia. About growing, and healing, and helping each other out. Maybe I just want a vegetable patch.
Nigel Slater’s Sausage and "Pumpkin" Mash
Serves 4, or more, depending on how hungry you are
8 pork sausages, plump ones
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 butternut squash
A large knob of butter
A sizable scoop of sour cream (optional)
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Lay the sausages out on a rimmed baking sheet, making sure that they don’t overlap. In a separate bowl, mix together the mustard, honey, and lemon juice. Pour the dressing over the sausages. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, turning the sausages once or twice to make sure that the sauce, which will turn into a thick and sticky glaze, covers them all.
For the mash: Peel and seed the squash, and then cut the flesh into 1 – 2 inch chunks. Steam the squash pieces, covered in a large pot, for about 20 minutes, until tender. Mash the squash with a wooden spoon (note: Slater recommends giving it a whirl in a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment) in a large bowl. Add the butter, and stir until relatively smooth. Add salt, pepper, and sour cream (if using), to taste.
Divide the mash onto four plates, and balance the sausages, drizzled with their sauce, on top. Pretend you’re in Britain, and enjoy.