Commentary, Line Cook

Line Cook // Matthew Zapruder with Curried Chicken Thighs and Cauliflower, Apricots, & Olives

by Keetje Kuipers | Associate Editor

Last month I spent two weeks at a fairly remote residency in central Oregon. Two hours south of Bend, on the edge of the Great Basin, sits PLAYA, which is named for the natural water formation it overlooks: a seasonal desert lake, shallow in the winter and spring, dry in the summer and fall. The property was originally a 19th century cattle ranch, briefly a 20th century bed and breakfast, and is now a 75-acre artistic outpost that can host ten artists and writers for residencies lasting two weeks to one month. I spent my fourteen days doing lots of writing, as well as a bit of local sightseeing. I visited the nearby wetlands where hunting season was open and—by the evidence of dead snow geese hanging by their necks from RV clotheslines—in full swing. I also hiked the high desert canyon, nicknamed the Punchbowl, and spent an afternoon bobbing in the mineral hot springs down the road. I took the little rowboat out on the pond and watched a fish come up from the murky depths to take a mayfly spinner that had just dropped from a willow. And I spent long hours contemplating the birds who came to pillage the silver olive tree outside my cabin window. The sunrises were epic. The wind had me thinking that God was paying my roof a visit. I soaked it all up.

But what I didn’t do was check my email, turn on my phone, or make a run to the grocery store. That’s because the nearest decent groceries are two hours away from PLAYA, cell phone towers are scarce in that pocket of Oregon, and the residency doesn’t equip the individual cabins with internet. Sure, I could have wandered over to the main building and plopped myself down by the huge stone fireplace with its crackling glow while I logged on for my internet fix. But I still couldn’t download or stream anything because the connection was patchy, dependent on the weather, limited in quantity, and came to us by satellite. Don’t misunderstand me: These conditions were just my speed. However, I had needed to show up with my food and entertainment planned out ahead of time.

So, in the second week, I started eyeing the chicken thighs I’d brought and wondering if they were old enough to give me salmonella, something I had done to myself several years ago just before flying to Rochester to give a reading at my publisher’s annual gala fundraiser. Though I did not want to repeat the incident in the Oregon Outback, as they call it, I decided to risk it. Next, I turned to my computer, where I’d stashed what I thought would be an adequate number of podcasts to get me through my time at PLAYA. Of course, I hadn’t. All that was left for me to cook to were leftover fairytales (downloaded for car rides with my daughter), a few very old episodes of “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” and one lonely “Between the Covers.” I say lonely because even though I adore David Naimon’s astute conversations with poets and prose writers, this particular episode was one I’d been trying to avoid listening to. Because, really, who wants to hear anyone, even a couple of beloved writers, ask the question (or, I guess, make the statement), “Why poetry?”

Matthew Zapruder’s poems, especially his collection Sun Bear, are among some of my favorite work being written today. But that didn’t mean I wanted to listen to him make “an impassioned call for a return to reading poetry and an incisive argument for poetry’s accessibility to all readers.” Zapruder’s most recent book, Why Poetry, sounded like an unnecessary effort to get me to enjoy reading poetry, which is something that, obviously, I already do. Still, there I was: questionable chicken and a very limited selection of podcasts. It was either that, or I was going to eat cereal and listen to a retelling of Rapunzel. So I gathered my ingredients and turned up the volume.

You know how sometimes it’s really nice to be proven wrong? Zapruder and Naimon got right down to business, and were soon talking about psychotherapy and the fictive spell and how Wallace Stevens was a crackpot philosopher. What a couple of lovable nerds! I thought, as I chopped apricots and mixed spices. This is outstanding! See, I’d heard Zapruder interviewed on another podcast just a couple of weeks earlier, and the interviewer (who shall not be named) hadn’t really hit his mark. But here was David Naimon, giving Zapruder a run for his money, making him stop and ponder. You could actually hear the moments when the two of them sort of took a breath to wonder in amazement, like they were both gazing up at the stars or at least a really pretty satellite crossing the sky. The bottom line is that I didn’t get food poisoning and I think I might actually give Zapruder’s new book a read. Sometimes scarcity is a good thing.

I paired this particular podcast with the ingredients I had on hand, which was just what I needed for Molly Gilbert’s outstanding Curried Chicken Thighs with Cauliflower, Apricots, and Olives. However, if these ingredients don’t strike your fancy, and your nearest grocery store is less than two hours away, you might want to try one of these other sheet pan chicken suppers, which are equally quick and delicious (I’ve made them all and haven’t been disappointed yet): Roast Chicken with Kimchi Smashed Potatoes, Sheet Pan Chicken Tikka, and Roasted Chicken with Potatoes, Arugula, and Garlic Yogurt.

Cooking Notes: If you make the one that I cooked at PLAYA, I suggest increasing the cauliflower and serving it with a side of couscous and a simple cucumber salad. Also, you really don’t need to marinate the chicken longer than forty-five minutes. So go ahead and do a little podcast listening while you prep the marinade. Then turn it off and tune back in forty-five minutes later. Those two lovable nerds will still be there gazing up at the sky.