A hockey season has rhythms. In August, while we’re scattering to our vacation spots, National Hockey League players are already skating full-bore. By Labor Day, they have returned to their respective cities of employment. In mid-September, they are peaking to ace their annual fitness tests. By early or mid-October, it’s game on until June, when one of 30 teams lifts the Stanley Cup.
For more than one anxious month, the only rhythm has been the bargaining ping-pong between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players Association. On Sept. 16, the NHL locked out its players. They cannot agree on how to divide an annual bounty that totaled $3.3 billion in 2011-12.
Hockey has been dormant for over a month. A total of 135 games have been canceled through Nov. 1. Negotiations continue.
For the past six seasons, I have served as the Globe’s Boston Bruins reporter, going from practices to games, home and on the road, writing features, profiles, game stories, notebooks, blog entries, and tweets, too busy to note life’s movements outside the bubble of the rink.
But for several weeks now, I’ve taken refuge from other assignments (NASCAR, Patriots, college football, New England Revolution) in my kitchen at home, and cooked many of the things I love, to the delight of my wife, Elizabeth, and our kids.
In my usual routine, by the time I shook off the Zamboni fumes and lifted my face from my laptop, it was practically Christmas. The grind of the road — and the toxic combination of fatty meals, little exercise, not enough home-brewed Counter Culture coffee (Capresso burr grinder, Bodum French press) — has the mind-warping effect of turning summer into winter, making you wonder just when the once-bushy trees lining your street turned into skeletons. Since June, neither my frequent flier miles nor my hotel points have budged. My road calendar, once stuffed with flights and rooms and car rentals, is empty. I am aware, rather than oblivious, of the progress of New England’s signature season.
I have never felt the pull of fall as keenly as I have during the lockout. The kitchen is where it feels the sharpest. The oven timer beeps. The food processor hums. Fists pump when I hit the sweet spot of my tomato soup. Curses flow when my apple pie crust balloons and the nutmeg kicks in far too sharply.
We have gone apple picking twice at Honey Pot Hill in Stow. Just about every morning, I’ve stewed Cortlands and McIntoshes to mix into oatmeal before walking Hana, 6, and Wright, 3, to school. I’ve made that pie twice (second time around, did not forget plenty of steam holes in the top crust and ditched the nutmeg) and made more forgiving galettes. One Saturday, wide awake at 4:45 a.m., I baked morning glory muffins for family breakfast.
For savory meals, I’ve roasted chickens, using Judy Rodgers’s salting technique from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” and boosting the flavor with an oregano-lemon-garlic paste tucked between the flesh and skin of the bird. I’ve shredded leftover bits and threw them into a pot pie. I’ve made pizzas I had read about in “It Must’ve Been Something I Ate,” by Jeffrey Steingarten. For at least three years, I had flailed about with various recipes, including an unfortunate one with whole-wheat flour. Steingarten’s recipe is foolproof.
I’ve churned out green ravioli, a favorite of my wife and kids. In previous seasons, I would try to make ravioli before long road trips. We’d have them together the day before I left, then freeze the rest so my wife could have an easy-to-prep meal after returning from carpooling to ballet or gymnastics.
For me, cooking, like writing, is a solitary exercise. When I’m writing, on my own with the keyboard, words that seemed tinny and disparate as I began suddenly come together and flow. Similarly, I like being alone in the kitchen. I cook for others by myself.
There are exceptions. Hana and Wright sometimes help with pizza, tasting the cheese blend, sprinkling the mushrooms, flouring the dough. But otherwise, the kitchen is my space. I don’t like chitchat. Lurking and peeking make me uncomfortable. You want to help, but please stay out of the way.
Here in my kitchen, for the first time in years, I feel like a proper New Englander again. Like nowhere else, our food evolves with the seasons. Only a few months ago, I dreaded turning on the oven. I’d grill cheeseburgers and just-picked corn for dinner, and roast marshmallows for s’mores. I’d pick lettuce and cucumbers from our garden and toss them with a Dijon vinaigrette.
Once the leaves blush and the air turns crisp, it seems natural to reach for the cinnamon, empty the King Arthur Flour bag, and blast the oven. I never could have cooked this much during a regular hockey season. I’ve hit my preferred spots: Russo’s in Watertown, Wilson Farm in Lexington, Tony’s Market Roslindale, Trader Joe’s. During idle moments, I’ve pondered adding flaxseed to my granola or sauteing spinach for a quiche instead of stressing over player trades and fussing about words. Fingers that hum on a keyboard stay busy slicing apples and smashing garlic.
As a regular hockey writer, meals help me place when and where I am on the NHL calendar. If I was fighting winds in pursuit of a chicken shawarma plate stacked with hummus, salad, rice, pita, and garlic sauce, I was in late-fall Ottawa. If I was defrosting with a Caffe Art Java latte following a mid-afternoon croque monsieur at L’Express, it was December in Montreal. A briny Greek salad eaten outdoors meant Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in February.
If and when the lockout lifts, things will return to normal. When I go to Philadelphia, I will eat roast pork at DiNic’s at the Reading Terminal Market; in New York, I’ll get Gaspe smoked salmon with cream cheese, capers, tomatoes, and onions on a sesame bagel at Russ & Daughters; and in Washington, sizzling steak with black pepper sauce at Full Kee restaurant.
Since my first season on the beat in 2006, my identity has been tied directly into my responsibilities. When someone asked me what I did, I mentioned the Bruins and The Boston Globe. For one strange month at least, I haven’t been able to say I am a hockey writer. I am a writer at home living through a New England fall.
The kitchen is a neat and orderly place when little about hockey makes sense.