In this excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War I am a new cook, intent on impressing Michel. On my first attempt I fail miserably.
i had a romantic notion of what life would be like with Michel, but I failed to recognize that an essential component of this relationship was that one of us needed to know how to cook, and it had to be me.
Before we moved to Boston fifty years ago where Michel was to begin his medical residency in Internal Medicine at the Lahey Clinic, I had rarely set foot in a kitchen. This was my mother’s domain and I lacked even the most basic cooking skills. Turkey seemed like an easy thing to prepare, so it was one of the first things I tried. One Friday evening before we left for a party I got out a small turkey that I had bought on sale at the supermarket. I went into the kitchen early Saturday morning−despite a very late evening−still wearing my white fur slippers. Somehow I got the idea that long, slow cooking at a low oven temperature would result in a succulent bird. I wanted the turkey ready to put in the oven by late morning so Michel and I could have the afternoon free to do something fun. As I was taking the plastic wrap off the bird I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror behind the stove. My hair stuck up in all angles like a rooster. I kept looking at myself, at the muscles on my forearms working as I tore the packing off and rinsed the bird.
“Look at you, Cathy,” I said. “You’re a chef and your first turkey is going to be great.”
For some reason I thought I knew how to cook stuffing. I sautéed some onions in vegetable oil, burning them only slightly; then I poured the stuffing mix on top. It got very stiff until I consulted the instructions: ‘add water.’ When I thought I had poured in enough liquid I stuffed it all inside the bird and closed it up with toothpicks. I put the bird in the oven at 300 degrees just before Michel and I left for a stroll along the Charles River.
When we returned I made mashed potatoes, defrosted peas and opened a can of cranberry sauce. When I thought it was time I pulled out a perfectly browned bird from the oven, transferred it to a serving platter and proudly set it on the table. It was not until I had already put the cooking pan to soak that I realized I had forgotten to save the juices. Fortunately, I had a can of ready-made gravy in the kitchen cabinet.
Blood spurted forth as I cut deeply into the turkey, spotting my dress and the white tablecloth. Michel flung himself back just in time to avoid blotches on his dress shirt. The bird was cooked to a depth of about one inch; the rest was raw. Michel sat quietly with his eyes lowered and his hands in his lap. I searched the surface of the bird to find cooked bits to put on his plate but found no more than a few thin slices. I filled his otherwise empty plate with a mound of mashed potatoes and lots of peas, smothering it all with the canned gravy.
“You’ll like the stuffing,” I said, turning the bird on its side. More blood gushed out, followed by a sac full of inner organs I had neglected to remove before stuffing the bird. Michel stood up, threw his napkin on the table, walked to the bathroom and locked the door.
The minute I heard the key turn I scooped up the bleeding turkey, took it to the kitchen and threw it in the garbage bin. When he came out of the bathroom I was sitting on the coach.
“Would you like to take a starving lady to dinner?” I asked sheepishly.
The next morning I went out and bought Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. There I was, the eager, aspiring young cook paging through the recipes, learning about such things as blanching, braising, deglazing and sautéing. The old me, the one who brought up feeling insecure, the one who failed other challenges, might have said, “Here’s something else I’m not good at−I can’t even cook.” But my life was changing and instead of accepting that first failure I was determined to become a great cook.
One evening, much to Michel’s delight I tried one of Julia’s recipes with scallops. She called these round silky mouthfuls that felt like wet tongues Coquilles St. Jacques. After simmering gently in white wine the scallops were delicately spooned into a velvety blend of cream and egg yolks, returned to their shells, sprinkled with grated Swiss cheese and briefly placed under the broiler. A glass of Sauvignon Blanc, at Julia’s suggestion, to accompany my scallops transformed Michel’s mood into a romantic one. I could think of no better motivation to become an excellent chef.
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