The cold, blustery Saturday brings thoughts of warm soups, and oven-baked casseroles as I search for the perfect recipe to use three pounds of asparagus before it goes bad. As I flip through my back issues of Cooking Light magazine, I remember Mom’s Chicken Divan. Actually I think it’s the Joy of Cooking’s Chicken Divan. I begin to frustrate myself, looking in almost every recipe book in my library, from In a Persian Kitchen, to International Recipes on Parade, a dossier of the 1966 Navy Wives Club. I’ve already looked three times through my copy of The Joy of Cooking, a 1954 edition handed down from my grandmother, worn and falling apart in places. Ingredients like sundried tomatoes and shitake mushrooms don’t make even a cameo appearance in the yellowed, batter-stained pages.
I have three bunches of asparagus, to be exact. Two from Henry’s Market, pencil thin, tender green shoots of asparagus and one bunch, magic marker thick, from Trader Joe’s, saran-wrap sealed in a recylable plastic dish. I confess to buying only one, and between my sister’s pre-holiday shopping frenzy, and my roommate’s excursion to the grocery store, three bunches of the green sticks ended up in my refrigerator. It’s not that I don’t like asparagus, but I have 3 bunches, and I hate to wasting anything.
As a last resort, I search the small pink and yellow box filled, in no particular order, with borrowed favorites like the green chile enchiladas Donna brought to an office potluck lunch eight years ago, and tasty hand-me-downs, like the giant foil-wrapped Laramie Loaf sandwich Midgie Brooks would bring to every picnic, Hawaii, 1972 to 1976.
I finally find the recipe on a folded piece of lined paper, tucked in between Lemon Bars and Beef Stroganoff. I don’t recognize the handwriting, but it is mostly legible, so I do a quick inventory of my larder before heading off to the grocery. All I need is chicken and cream of mushroom soup. I repeat this mantra as I drive to the store. Chicken Cream of Mushroom, Chicken Cream of Mushroom. I do this not only to remember what I’m supposed to buy, but to stay on task, to not to wander to the gourmet food section, Chicken Cream of Mushroom and to stay away from the bakery, Chicken Cream of Mushroom.
I manage to get in and out of the store in about 10 minutes, successfully carrying to the car one package of boneless skinless chicken breasts and 2 cans of Cream of Mushroom soup, 98 percent fat free. I’ll use one tonight, and save one for another rainy day, another casserole.
I had invited my friend Cathryn to dinner, and my roommate, Susann, and when my sister Debby called to see what I was doing, I invited her as well. I figured there’d be plenty of food. Well plenty of asparagus, anyway.
In my tiny kitchen, I retrieve the small square casserole dish that belonged to grandma, and prepare to assemble mom’s Chicken Divan… substituting asparagus for broccoli. I rinse the green stems and bend the tough ends until they snap, leaving only tender tops to layer along the bottom of the dish. I then layer the chicken and prepare the sauce, one can cream of mushroom soup, one half cup mayonnaise and 2 teaspoons of curry. The recipe also calls for 1 teaspoon of what looks like “juice” but I leave that out since all I have is cran-rasberry, which I’m pretty sure won’t work. My time spent with Cooking Light makes me feel a bit guilty that the mayonnaise is not fat free, but I pour the sauce over the chicken anyway. I again take liberties with the recipe, adding slivered almonds to the top instead of the recipe’s requisite breadcrumbs. I figure I’ve already challenged tradition, so I might as well go all out. I set the oven to 350 and slide the Pyrex in.
As I wait for everyone to arrive, I prepare a fire and light the candles on the mantle. Burning wood, citrus, sage, and cranberry scents mingle with the warm curry perfume emanating from the kitchen and my new apartment begins to feel like home.