There is something interesting that happens when you leave the Northern Hemisphere in late August, travel to the Southern Hemisphere, then return three weeks later in late September. You get tired. Really tired.
And I'm not talking jet lag-tired. I'm talking confused, hit-by-a-train tired that clearly has nothing to do with time zones and everything to do with seasons. You see, when I left Ohio back in August, it was still quite warm and the sun was setting, as the late-summer sun does, a little past 8:00 p.m. It still felt like summer; flora and fauna were still exhibiting their summertime behaviors. I had nary a thought of a jacket.
But then I hopped on a big Qantas jet that took me to Sydney, where it was the very end of winter and the sun was setting, as the late-winter sun does, at about 6:30 p.m. Even after I got over the jet lag I found myself routinely exhausted at 7:30 each night. Like, need-to-go-to-bed-right-now exhausted. I finally pinned it down: my body, used to darkness at a later hour, simply thought it was close to bedtime by virtue of the lack of daylight outside.
See, normally you'd casually evolve from the late-setting sun to the early-setting sun, you know, over the course of fall. But this was a shock to my system.
I returned to Ohio three weeks later to a 7:30 p.m. sunset, blustery winds, scattering fallen leaves, sideways rain, perishing annuals and a sore throat. I had to think about where I'd stored my coats. I busted out the slippers and used the seat heater in my car. On September 24 I recorded the first seasonal use of a blanket while watching TV at night. I didn't even have to hose off the horses any longer after I rode them: they just weren't hot. Where Husband and I once had to close the windows and suffer a stifling heat because we were playing The Beatles: Rock Band at significant volume and didn't want to disturb our neighbors, we found ourselves last night playing "And Your Bird Can Sing" happily and cozily with shut windows.
OK, so why the dissertation on seasons and the internal body clock? Because all this confusion and sleepiness forced my hand in the kitchen, where I was inspired the other night to cook a hearty casserole of chicken, potatoes and the last of the summer garden's tomatoes. Husband was getting ready to observe Yom Kippur and wanted something filling but relatively healthy to sustain him over the next 24 hours' fast. It had been raining all weekend and I had no desire to leave the homey cocoon of the kitchen. I wanted only to make something that would warm and nourish us as the squirrels feverishly buried their acorns outside the living room windows.
This dish hit the spot. It's simple yet wonderfully flavorful, rustic and unfussy. Just the sort of thing you might want to ease you into the imminent colder months, or at least usher you back into the kitchen after weeks of vacationing and not cooking. Most important of all: Husband loved it. And there's nothing better than cooking something a little special, no matter how simple and no matter the season, for someone you love.
OREGANO BAKED CHICKEN DINNER
Adapted loosely from Jamie Oliver
This dish really isn't much of a looker, just a heap of perfectly roasted ingredients on a plate. But it tastes really, really good. Serve with with some crusty bread to sop up the wonderful juices!
1 3/4 lb. red-skinned potatoes
2 lbs. fresh tomatoes
2 T. + 1/4 c. olive oil, divided
4 chicken breasts, cut into strips
1/2 c. fresh oregano leaves, divided
Freshly-cracked black pepper
1 T. red wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the potatoes, whole, into a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 20 minutes. While the potatoes are cooking, cut a small "X" into the bottom of the tomatoes.
When the potatoes are cooked, leave them in the pot of water and add the tomatoes. Cook for 1-2 minutes, enough time to allow the tomato skins to loosen. Drain the potatoes and tomatoes into a colander and allow to cool slightly.
Heat 2 T. olive oil in a large skillet and add the chicken. Season with a pinch of sea salt. Saute over high heat to sear the chicken and brown it slightly; don't worry about cooking the chicken through because it will finish cooking in the oven. When the chicken is browned, turn off the heat and set aside.
Smash the potatoes using your thumb or a fork, then place in an oven-proof casserole dish.
Peel the tomatoes, discarding the skins. Cut the tomatoes into chunks and add to the dish with the potatoes. Add the reserved chicken.
In a mortar and pestle (or a food processor), combine 1/4 c. of the oregano with a generous pinch of sea salt. Bruise (or process) until the salt begins to break down the oregano leaves. Add the remaining 1/4 c. olive oil, a pinch of black pepper and the red wine vinegar; mash/process to combine.
Pour the oregano mixture over the chicken and vegetables. Scatter the remaining 1/4 c. fresh oregano leaves over the top of the casserole. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the potatoes get a bit crispy on the edges.
Makes 4-6 servings, depending on whether or not you're about to fast for 24 hours.