Kitchen Chronicles is a weekly series by Barbara Sibbald — novelist, award-winning journalist, and long-time contributor to Ottawa Magazine. Visit Kitchen Chronicles every Sunday for a new instalment — and a tested recipe.
Gavin stirs the beef stew* for the hundredth time. Where the heck are they? he wonders. How long does it take to pick Mom up at the airport? He glances at the starburst clock; it’s already been over an hour. Lame excuse leaving me at home to stir the stew. I know they just want time to talk about Uncle Neil without me around. I want to know what’s going on too. He’s my uncle.
Gavin balances the lid half-way on the pot and hears the car door slam. He leaps to the back door as his mom, dad and Uncle Neil come up the back steps. He yanks open the door
— Hey Uncle Neil! he yells, jumping up on him and giving him a big hug. I didn’t know you were coming too!
— No one tells me anything either, says his uncle with a grin. You’re getting so friggin’ big, cowboy.
Luc and Fiona follow Neil in. Fiona’s mouth is a thin line; Gavin knows that means serious trouble is afoot.
— Hi Mom, he says, the grin still plastered on his face.
She returns a terse uplifting of her lips. Not really a smile.
— Hi honey. We’re giving your Uncle Neil a little holiday. Just for a few days though, he’s got an appointment Thursday in Halifax.
— I’m glad to be here, says Neil, roughing up Gavin’s hair.
— Hey, maybe you can borrow dad’s bike and we can go for a ride, says Gavin.
— Later, Gavin, says Fiona. Let your uncle get settled first. That stew smells delicious.
— Thanks for minding it, buddy, says Luc.
— Gavin, why don’t you help your uncle get settled in the spare room, says Fiona, while I set the table.
Gavin knows his parents want to be alone for a minute, but he’s happy to have his uncle to himself. He grabs Neil’s knapsack.
— Right this way, he says with a mock formality. The two head upstairs.
Fiona begins getting plates from the cupboard, but Luc puts his hand on her hand, she turns to him and he wraps his arms around her.
— I’ve never seen him so bad, she murmurs. He’s hardly talking at all and then it’s all false bravado and forced smiles. I feel so helpless.
— He’ll relax, says Luc, stepping back to look her in the eye. Gavin’s great for him. They get along so well.
— Yeah, I know. Neil’s doctor told us it would take a while for the new meds to kick in so this is a critical time. That’s partly why I couldn’t just leave him with Mom. But he seems so out of it.
— You’re a wonderful sister, Fiona. Going out there, snagging him out from under your mother…
— She was borderline hysterical when I left, says Fiona, smirking. Didn’t understand why he needed to go, wanted to keep him there, or come along. She doesn’t even try to understand. She thinks he’s a drama queen…
— You have to love the irony of that! says Luc.
— No kidding. In her opinion all he needs is a good shake, or a girlfriend, or something and he’ll snap out of it. She just makes things worse for him.
— Le nez le plus long n’est pas toujours le meilleur senteur, says Luc.
— That’s a new one…
— It means the person with the longest nose isn’t always the one with the best sense of smell.
— Good one, says Fee. She pauses.
— You know, I hate to admit it but Mom’s right in some ways. He does need a change. All those years in the basement, so few friends.
She shakes her head.
— That must make things worse.
— Fee, you have to be careful. There’s only so much you can do … you’re not a shrink and he’s a grown man.
— I know, but he’s my baby brother too.
— Yeah, well, this is something you can’t fix for him. You can’t beat up the bully or write his English essay. He’s got to work on it. And he’s got a psychiatrist now to help him.
— Yeah, and she’s great too. We had a family meeting, and she pegged Mom right away. Asked to speak to me privately afterward which really got Mom in a lather! The psychiatrist is looking for a residential spot for Neil, a sort of interim place so he can get a fresh start… and she agreed a visit here would be good for him.
— What brought this all on anyway? Did something happen to Neil?
— On the plane, he finally admitted that he’d lost his biggest client. He said they were being unreasonable, but I suspect they just got fed up with missed deadlines and stuff like that. I think that’s sort of what triggered it, the attempt …. He hardly has any other work left now. That’s really tough for anyone to deal with, but if you add social isolation, a domineering mother and mental health issues…
— Losing his work might be blessing in disguise, says Luc. It might kick start him into sorting himself.
— I’ll set the table, Fee. Why don’t you pour yourself a glass of wine?
*Luc’s fabulous beef stew
1½ pounds lean stewing beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
olive oil as needed
3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
freshly ground pepper
1 large onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups red wine
4 cups beef broth (from powder is okay)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons fresh herbs (such as rosemary and thyme), minced
5 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
4 carrots peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 stalks celery, washed and coarsely sliced
½ small turnip, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 ½ cups cooked pearl onions (cut an X in root end, boil 5 minutes, drain, rinse twice and peel)
8 ounces chanterelles cut lengthwise, sauté in butter
Parsley to garnish
- Shake beef cubes in bag with flour and pepper.
- In a large pot, brown meat in olive oil over medium-high heat.
- Add onion and garlic, sauté 3 minutes.
- Add wine, broth and herbs. Simmer 45 minutes, uncovered.
- Add potatoes, carrots, celery and turnip. Simmer 1 hour, adding more hot broth if needed
- 15 minutes before serving, add pearl onions, chanterelles and parsley.
- Serve with baguette and a fresh green tossed salad.