We spend Christmas, my fifth with the Frenchman’s family, in Lanzarote–the easternmost island in the Canary chain. I eat the best pulpo of my life. I’ve developed a tan.
The island is largely covered by volcanic rock, remnants of an eruption as recent as 1730. In December, the sun shines bright and warm, but the constant, insistent wind carries a chill, and sometimes it’s necessary to change from a bathing suit into many layers in a matter of minutes. The island is stippled with cacti and aloe plants. There are palm trees too; not the willow-trunked variety–these are low, compacted trunks, as if hunkered down again the wind. For days at a time, a film of sand blown in from the Sahara blankets the sky–calima, it’s called–and hazes the atmosphere. Driving in the car, past villages, each building white-washed, low, and square, each door and shutter painted the same, gem olive green–we pass unusual vineyards: vines winding through volcanic gravel, each plant protected from the wind by semi-circles of black rock.
I’ve passed the time here uncharacteristically disconnected from all my electronic devices. Meals with the Frenchman’s family are communal events, and we play games after dinner, or walk along the water. I’ll have a small glass of wine with lunch. My French and Spanish is all jumbled together now, and I have to pay attention not to weave both languages into sentences. I’m grateful for this trip–it’s been restful in a way I forgot was possible. For once, my mind isn’t running one hundred miles per minute. I give myself over to books for hours at a time, and writing isn’t just another item in a long list of to-dos. I have time to let the words roll around, time for them to percolate. It’s a joy.
What to Make for Christmas Eve Dinner When You’re Limited to a Microscopic Kitchen + Food From a Sparingly Stocked Corner Store + a Nearly Sold Out Fishmonger:
There will be foie gras, toast, and sweet wine to start. You are with a family of Frenches, and this is Christmas–it’s non-negotiable. You’re mother-in-law will bring these supplies with her from France, so no need to worry.
Make a salad from the collection of weary vegetables scavenged at the shop: a head of romaine, a bag of arugula, a red onion, one browning avocado, and a preternaturally long cucumber ensconced in plastic. Use the olive oil, homemade vinegar, and sea salt that your mother-in-law also brought with her. Buy mustard, even though you know you won’t go through it all in three days. Chop some garlic with the world’s dullest knife; make a vinaigrette.
Intend to make a proper potato dish, but then think realistically about your situation: you only have two pots at your disposal. Buy plastic pouches of potatoes instead, which promise to steam your potatoes in the microwave in seven minutes flat. Serve with mojo picante.
Stew a double batch (using the two biggest pots you can find, you are feeding seven) of Marcella Hazan’s truly magical tomato sauce, so simple it only requires three ingredients. After an hour, when the onion’s gone silky, flash cook three squid, cut into rings, with a whole head of roughly chopped garlic and a ribbon of olive oil. (If you only have one pan, do this is batches.) Add the calamari, along with filets of the mystery fish you bought from the fishmonger, to the tomato sauce. Let the fish poach in the warm sauce on low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through. Top each bowl with parsley.
Pour a glass of wine. Appreciate the festively set table. Mash your potatoes in your bowl of fish stew, so that they soak up the buttery sauce. Relax.
For dessert, enjoy the rainbow sprinkle and powdered sugar-covered truffles your mother-in-law carried from her own kitchen in French, for you, for Christmas.