I have a travel tic. No, not the plastic bags I carry along because they come in handy. While I travel to explore the unfamiliar, the first thing I always do when I arrive is to make myself at home. Whether it's a room in a hostel, a fancy hotel or a vacation rental, we're barely five minutes in the door before I start unpacking. I transfer clothes from suitcase to drawers and clothes hangers. Dopp kits get emptied and my toiletries take their places in their new temporary home. A scented votive gets placed on the bedside table, which is where I will also stack my reading materials. It must be a fear of displacement, even when I've chosen it, that drives me to nest.
So it was especially jarring to me when the vacation rental in London our friends and I had booked over the Internet turned out to be different than promised. The converted church looked just as it had in the photos; that was not the surprise. It was just that our "Vacation Rental By Owner" was more of a "Vacation Rental With Owners." Our friends and I had already chosen which rooms we were going to take. Harriet, our host, took us on our tour of the space, and I wondered why there seemed to be one less room than I remembered.
"Where is the light blue room with the fuchsia settee?" (That was the one I had been eyeing.)
"Oh, I didn't think you would need that space," Harriet said, not missing a beat as she unlocked a door. "Won't all the [five] children just stay in one room together? No worries, let me just remove my belongings from there."
That was surprise No. 1.
"My partner and I will just stay in the choir loft," she said. "Don't mind us; just pretend we are not here."
But it was impossible to pretend when, while attempting to stretch out in the living room that was below the open loft, we'd hear Harriet and Lee's exaggerated whispers. When we'd return late at night, which should not have been anyone's business but ours, Harriet would loudly toss and turn and sigh, irritated from being woken up at night. We felt more like houseguests in a stranger's home than tenants, free to come and go as we pleased.
Further surprises came along. One early morning, we were awoken by loud sounds downstairs. There were at least a dozen people busily moving furniture, laying out lamps and doing hair and makeup.
Harriet eyed us. "You should probably eat your breakfast quickly so that the film crew can start working." (Film crew?) "Isn't it exciting?" she said breathlessly. "Mandy Moore is filming her movie here! I hope you have a full day planned so that you won't interrupt the filming."
Mandy Moore? Filming? Wait a second-- what about the naps our exhausted kids were counting on having? And was our rent subsidizing Mandy Moore's film? I snuck a peek at the blond-wigged woman whose face was being made up for what seemed like hours. That was not Mandy Moore.
Another day, our breakfast was again interrupted by an unexpected visit. "Sorry about that, " Harriet said. "These people are probably going to buy the house."
"Is it for sale?" I asked.
"Yes, but I don't know too much of the details. The owners are in charge of that." Turns out, Harriet and Lee were not even owners, but staff of the owners ... if even that.
As a seeker of routines, I felt very unsettled. While I exulted in the randomness of our daytime explorations, I needed to come home to the familiar, where I could kick back. I needed some comfort.
Around the corner from our over-occupied vacation rental was the main drag, where you could get everything but English food. There were Thai, Brazilian, Caribbean and Persian restaurants. We tried them all (it was hard to cook in the kitchen, since Harriet and Lee seemed always to be there), but our favorite was the Persian place. We went there for at least half of our dinners that week. The door opened to the view of an open wood-fired oven where lavash and nan were freshly baked. We gorged on kebabs and the classical khoresht, or stews, that are typical of Persian cuisine. To cope with the unending surprises in what was supposed to be our home away from home, we found comfort by eating the same meals over and over.
I didn't tire of those exquisite dishes, and since that time have been waiting for the opportunity to explore cooking Persian food. I am particularly enamored by the dish known as fesenjan. It is a dish of chicken or duck stewed in a sauce composed of the unusual ingredients of pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts, served with fluffy basmati rice. The flavors are rich and exotic to the uninitiated. But they remind me of home.
Fesenjan (Persian Chicken in Walnut and Pomegranate Sauce)
This dish combines the creamy richness of the slow-cooked ground walnut sauce with a sour-sweet undercurrent of pomegranate molasses. It's savored on special occasions. I'll be making it again on Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which is celebrated on the first day of spring, which falls this year on March 20. Recipe adapted from Whats4eats.com.
Serves 6 to 8.
- ¼ cup butter or oil
- 2 pounds chicken legs or thighs, bone-in, cut into serving-size pieces
- 1 large onion, sliced thinly
- 2 cups walnuts, finely ground with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor
- 1 ½ cups chicken stock or water
- 2/3 cup pomegranate molasses *
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
- pepper to taste
- optional: sugar to taste
- Heat butter or oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium flame. Add the chicken pieces and brown on all sides. Remove browned chicken and reserve on a plate.
- Add the onions to the pot and sauté until translucent.
- Stir in the ground walnuts and stock or water and return the browned chicken pieces to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
- Stir in the pomegranate molasses, cardamom, salt and pepper. Simmer for another hour until the chicken is tender, the sauce is slightly thickened and the walnuts begin to release their oil. Adjust seasoning to taste, adding sugar if desired, and simmer for 10 more minutes. Serve with plain white basmati rice.
* Pomegranate molasses, sometimes called pomegranate syrup, is available in most Middle Eastern and health food stores. It has the color and consistency of molasses but is simply reduced pomegranate juice, without added sugar. If it is unavailable, you can substitute 2 cups of fresh pomegranate juice, and use only 1/2 cup of stock or water.