Friday, March 21, 2014

Cooking Up Trouble - Part II

By Bettyann Moore

Many times Maggie had heard Porpoise say “They don’t call it the web for nothing,” but didn’t realize what he’d meant until now. After reading and rereading through the recipes and jotting down notes until she felt a bit more comfortable with them, she clicked on a highlighted link for Family Recipes. Then on a link for Pot Pies, which led her to the HappyGrumpyChef. As far as Maggie could tell, the HappyGrumpyChef (such a name!) was just a grandmother in Kansas who liked to cook and put up a recipe Web site. Nonetheless, Maggie spent a long time looking at the woman’s pictures and videos and reading stories about her family. Maggie had been ensnared in the World Wide Web. She didn’t surface until she heard the clomp of John’s boots on the back porch.

“Oh for heaven’s sake!” Maggie cried, jumping up. She’d completely forgotten about dinner. She ran to the freezer and grabbed a bag of stew she’d frozen months before, silently blessing the microwave she’d cursed when her son had installed it. Then she pulled out a bowl from the cupboard and started assembling ingredients for biscuits. Start to finish, they’d take 20 minutes. By the time John was out of the shower and dressed, a hot (and delicious) dinner would be waiting.

While she worked the butter (always cold!) into the flour for the biscuits, Maggie couldn’t stop thinking about the HappyGrumpyChef. The woman’s recipes were nothing special as far as she could tell. Why, she even recommended short cuts like using store-bought crust! She was funny, though, and obviously proud of her family. She wrote with a lot of heart. Maggie admired that.

John came into the kitchen just as Maggie was pulling the biscuits out of the oven. Dinner was served. Maggie couldn’t wait until afterward when she could get back to the computer. She told herself it was because she needed to email Porpoise with a detailed shopping list and a list of ingredients he needn’t bother buying, like tomatoes. There was no reason to use those hard, tasteless grocery store things when she had lovely heirlooms all ripe and ready. Once the email was sent, though, her time was her own.

After school the next day, Porpoise showed up at his grandmother’s door with bags of groceries. He couldn’t wait to get started.

“Heaven’s, sweetie, it looks like you bought out the store!” Maggie said, helping him unload the bags.

“Pretty much, but they still had a lot of tomatoes, Gram,” Porpoise said, smiling. “When can we get started?”

“Hold on there, young man,” Maggie cautioned. “Let’s sort these things first. I was thinking that we could probably do the salad and one other thing tonight if you’d like.”

“Could we? That’d be great! Like what?”

“Maybe the Jambon Chevre, too? It shouldn’t be too hard for you to handle. Tomorrow we’ll try the bisque. We’ll leave the confit until Friday. It has to sit in the fridge overnight, you know, and we’ll need all of Saturday to prepare it.” Maggie knew she was showing off, but was happy to be able to.

At first tentative and nervous, Porpoise used the kitchen implements – especially his grandmother’s sharp knives – slowly and carefully.

“Here,” Gram said, showing him how to use the chef’s knife the right way, swiftly and deftly. “The kitchen is no place for shrinking violets!”

A willing and capable student, Porpoise finally caught on fairly well in his grandmother’s estimation. Even John agreed, since he was the one who had to eat the results that night.

“Pretty fancy stuff you’re putting out here, Porpoise,” he said after tasting the ham roll-ups.

“They’re really okay then, Grandpa?” Porpoise asked, still a bit amazed that he could pull it off.

“I’d say you’re gonna sweep that young lady right off her feet!”

Pleased, Porpoise blushed in agreement. “How ‘bout the tomato salad, Gramps?”

John took another bite of the salad. “Just have to get used to this fancy cheese,” he said. “Your grandma’s tomatoes sure are somethin’, though, and so?”

Porpoise agreed, though he never really thought there was much difference in tomatoes and still didn’t. He was young.

“I might not be able to get back here tomorrow night,” Porpoise worried aloud. “I have 4-H and it might be late.”

“No problem, sweetie,” Gram assured him. “I have to be somewhere Wednesday night anyway. We’ll do the crème brulee and bisque on Thursday and duck on Friday and Saturday. By the time next Saturday rolls around, you’ll be an old pro. And if you’re not, we’ll still have time to practice!”

Porpoise was grinning like a maniac when he left and still grinning when he came back on Thursday to tackle the lobster bisque and crème brulee. Gram seemed distracted and left Porpoise to his own devices most of the time. He burned the scallions and onions on the first try, so he had to dump it out and start again. Chopping all the vegetables a second time gave him a chance to improve his knife skills, but he couldn’t see why they couldn’t just buy the stuff already chopped. His grandmother would never hear of it, of course.

“Gram! Soup’s on!” Porpoise yelled once the soup was a thick, creamy consistency. He ladled its fragrant goodness into two soup bowls and set them on the small kitchen table. Grandpa was allergic to shellfish, so they didn’t have to wait for him.

“Mmmmmm, smells wonderful, dear!” Gram said, hurrying into the kitchen. She went to the bread box and cut off two slices of her homemade bread to go with the soup. They dipped in their spoons and tasted.

“Why, Porpoise, this is absolutely amazing!” Gram crowed. “It’s so creamy and the bits of lobster are cooked just right. Bravo!”

Porpoise basked in the praise. He thought it was pretty darn good, too. He kept picturing April’s rapturous face as she ate his offerings.

Gram finished first, then got up and headed off again. “Don’t forget to clean up before you start the brulee,” she called over her shoulder.

Porpoises surveyed the kitchen and frowned. He’d never given much thought to clean-up before he started cooking. Any time he even offered to help his mom or grandmother, he was sent away. Only they knew how to do it right. “Guess it’s not magic after all,” he said, mopping up the last bits of soup with his bread.

Gram supervised more closely when he started making the crème brulee, then trotted off again. Still, Porpoise managed to get the ramekins filled – if a bit sloppily – and into the oven. While he waited for the pudding to cook, he cleaned up the latest monster mess he’d made. The pudding needed to sit in the fridge for several hours before he could get a chance to take the torch to them. That, he felt sure, would be the best part, but he had homework to do.

“So I guess it’ll have to wait until tomorrow,” Porpoise said as he found a spot in his grandparents’ refrigerator for the pudding.

“What’s that, dear?” Gram called from the dining room. Porpoise found her at the table where she was hunched over a laptop Porpoise had never seen before, glasses perched on the tip of her nose.

“I said the brulee will have to … wow, Gram, you’re using a computer?” Porpoise had seen her balk for weeks about using a microwave, her gas stove was from the ‘50s and while her sewing machine was electric, it’d started out as a pedal model that Grandpa had updated. As far as he could tell, Gram thought “tech” was just another four-letter word.

Never taking her eyes off the screen, Gram waved the boy off. “Such a fuss you’re making,” she said, as if she’d been using a computer all her life. “This old dog isn’t done learning new tricks!”

“Whatever you say, Gram,” Porpoise said, taken aback. “The kitchen’s all clean and the brulee is in the fridge. I have to get my math done, but I’ll be back tomorrow. Did you want to check how clean ...”

Maggie waved him away again. “I’m sure it’s just fine, dear,” she said, surprising him. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Come give me a kiss.”

Porpoise sidled up and gave his Gram a kiss on her cheek while stealing a quick peek at the laptop screen. He expected to see some silly computer game, like Maj-Jong, but it was nothing like that at all. He couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but it was very slick and looked high-tech. He shrugged and headed home, his mind already on April.

The whole family – Porpoise, his grandparents and parents – gathered around the dining room table for the duck confit on Saturday. The laptop was nowhere in sight. The amount of work that went into the meal surprised even Maggie. They had saved the crème brulee for dessert and Maggie made biscuits and green beans to round out the meal. Never one to like heavily fried foods, Maggie was surprised at how good the Pommes Frittes were; had she known, she never would have made the biscuits.

At the end of the meal, John stood and raised his glass of whole milk.

“I’d like to propose a toast to my grandson, Gerald ‘Porpoise’ McAllister,” he declared, “the next … uh … give me a famous chef’s name someone.”

“Anthony Bourdain!”

“Eric Ripert!”

“Paul Prudhomme!”

“Julia Child!” That came from Porpoise’s mother.

“Okay, okay, to the next Paul Prudhomme!”

Everyone hoisted and clinked their glasses, except Porpoise, who sat there grinning and blushing.

“Thanks, Gramps,” he said, “but I think you all might be a bit biased.”

John winked at his grandson. “A week from today one lucky lady will be added to your fan club.”

Porpoise could only hope.

On Monday, Porpoise waited impatiently at their table for April to finally get to class. She came breezing in a second before the bell wearing a long scarf dress that fluttered as she moved. It seemed to Porpoise that she was floating on air.

He wanted to tell her right away about Saturday’s meal, but Mrs. Hoyt was at the front of the room, commanding attention.

“Class, I have exciting news!” Mrs. Hoyt crowed. “Thursday and Friday, as you know, are parent/teacher conferences.”

The room started clapping; it meant two days off from school.

Mrs. Hoyt raised her voice over the din and continued. “And I have volunteered this class to make treats for the event!”

“What? Boiled rice?” one of the girls muttered under her breath as everyone groaned.

“Each kitchen will make something different so we’ll have a nice variety.” The teacher began passing out recipe cards to each kitchen. “We’ll practice for the next two days, taste each other’s dishes, then make our final products on Wednesday.”

Porpoise glanced down at the index card the teacher had put on the table: Brownies, it read. He tingled with excitement. Brownies had to be tons easier than crème brulee. He could show off for April. He showed her the card, but she frowned and nibbled at a thumb nail. For the first time ever, she raised her hand.

“Uh, Mrs. Hoyt,” she called.

“Yes, Miss Showers? Is there a problem?”

“Well, I was just wondering if maybe we could make a salad or something like that instead?”

Mrs. Hoyt chuckled. “A salad? A salad isn’t much of a treat, dear,” she answered, getting a titter or two out of the class. “No one will be making salad. But why do you ask?”

“There’s eggs in these,” April said, snatching the card out of Porpoise’s hand and waving it like a flag.

“I daresay there are eggs in all of the things we’ll be making, April,” Mrs. Hoyt said. “We have chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodles, brownies … are you allergic, dear?”

“No, I’m a vegan,” April said.

Mrs. Hoyt cocked her head and sighed. Everyone in the room cocked their heads, especially Porpoise, who’d never heard the word before.

“Is your objection to making the brownies, April,” Mrs. Hoyt asked, “or to eating them?”

April shrugged. “Both, but mostly to eating them, I guess.”

“Well, that’s easy then. You certainly don’t have to eat them and there are other jobs in the kitchen that you can do … pan prep and dish washing for instance.”

April sighed and made a face, but settled back into her chair, resigned. Porpoise was going through his menu in his mind. Only the crème brulee had eggs in it. He’d have to come up with something else. He wondered if there were other things vegans couldn’t eat. He didn’t want to look stupid, though, so he’d have to do some research into this vegan thing.

“Gram! Gramma?” Once again, Porpoise came barreling into his grandparents’ kitchen, but this time with the worst possible news.

“Heavens, dear,” Gram said, coming out of the dining room, “is there another girl you want to impress?”

“Gram, this is serious! And, trust me, I won’t be impressing anyone, especially April, any time soon.”

“What? How could that be? Your menu is wonderful and ...”

“Gram, I just found out that she’s a vegan!”

Maggie frowned at her grandson for a second. “I’m so disappointed in you, Porpoise McAllister!” she said. “In this house someone’s religion doesn’t make a whit of difference!”

“Gram … no, veganism isn’t a religion.”

“It certainly sounds like one,” Maggie said. “Then what is it?”

Porpoise went to the sink and filled a glass with water and downed it before he answered.

“It’s like vegetarianism, only worse.”

“Worse? How could it be worse?” To Maggie’s mind, anyone who didn’t love to sink their teeth into a nice, juicy steak or crispy fried chicken just hadn’t been brought up right.

“Gram,” Porpoise spoke slowly and clearly. “They … don’t … eat … any … animal … products. None. No milk, no eggs, no seafood, no cheese … and definitely no meat. Not even honey! Bye-bye feta. So long lobster. See ya, duck.”

Maggie stood their with her mouth open, her hands over her heart. She felt sick.

“What do they eat, then?” she finally asked.

“Vegetables. Fake milk. Fake eggs. They even have fake meat, usually made out of tofu.”

“Tofu? I don’t even know what that is!”

“It’s bean curds or something,” Porpoise told her. “And get this: A lot of them don’t use silk or leather, either, according to what I read.” He tried to remember if April wore leather shoes, but came up blank. “Thing is, Gram, we can’t serve any of the dishes I came up with. None!” Porpoise flopped down onto a kitchen chair and groaned.

Gram sank into a chair next to him. “As disappointed as you are, honey,” she said, laying a hand over his, “it’s not the end of the world.” Porpoise groaned louder. “I’m serious!” Maggie stood up. “Come with me,” she commanded. Porpoise groaned again and got up slowly to follow her.

Maggie was typing something on the laptop at the dining room table when he caught up.

“See?” she crowed, motioning him to come over.

Porpoise shuffled over to take a look at the screen.

“I just typed ‘vegan recipes’ into the Google and voila!” Gram said.

“It’s just Google, Gram, not the Google … oh, never mind.” Porpoise was looking at a lot of colorful pictures of assorted vegan dishes. There were main courses, desserts, even stuff with ‘gravy.’ He looked at his grandmother with wonder.

“Don’t look so surprised, dear,” she said. “I’ve become a pretty good Googler.”

Regardless, Porpoise’s heart still sank at the thought of starting all over again – the shopping, the cooking, the clean-up. “Thing is, Gram, dad needs my help after school this to get the rest of the hay in,” he said. “He gave me a pass last week, but I don’t think he’ll let it slide this time. There’s all that shopping ...”

“Hush now,” Gram commanded. “Who has the best garden in the whole county?”

“What? Well, you do, but so?”

“Sweetie, I have every vegetable you can imagine right here! We might have to buy this tofu stuff and fake eggs you mentioned, but I’ll bet I have just about everything else you’ll need. And don’t you have off from school at the end of the week?”

“Yeah, but ...”

“Tell you what I’ll do,” Gram said, clicking through some of the pictures. “I’ll come up with a menu, you’d trust me to do that, wouldn’t you?”

“I’m pretty sure you’d do a better job of it than I did,” Porpoise said, hanging his head.

“Okay, good. I’ll come up with a menu, we’ll discuss it, and then bright and early on Thursday we cook. Trust me, vegetable dishes will be lots easier than the last ones. And I bet some of my own recipes would work perfectly. You love my vegetable soup, don’t you?”

“I sure do … but there’s no animal products in it, right?”

“Not a one.”

“And for dessert, maybe something with apples? Your trees are full of them.”

“Good idea! Gram said, pleased at the thought. “We won’t do pie, though. Crusts are a big challenge for people. Why, your mother … well, never mind that. My apple crisp would be perfect. I’ll be sure to use, heaven help me, margarine instead of butter. So, do we have a plan?”

“We sure do, Gram, and thanks,” Porpoise said, hugging her.

“Now, scat! I have work to do and so do you.” Gram walked the boy to the door then went to the cupboard and pulled out her well-worn recipe box and brought it to the computer. Time to do some comparisons and adaptations.

Maggie found that planning a vegan meal was a lot easier than the fancy French one. She and Porpoise decided to go Italian since that kind of cooking relies heavily on fresh vegetables and herbs. Besides, she had put up hundreds of jars of tomatoes and tomato sauce and knew they’d pass vegan muster. She did do a lot of checking and double checking to see if some of the staples she had on hand would do. Maggie had never spent any time reading labels, but she got good at it. Who knew that any margarine (just the word made her shudder) that contained casein was not vegan? Or that her brand of shortening, while vegan, was made by a company that the vegan community frowned on for its politics?

“Politics, shmolitics,” Maggie said, deciding to use the shortening anyway and crossing her fingers that the girl wouldn’t care.

Since dinner would be at Brian and Thea’s house, Maggie and Porpoise practiced there, though Maggie made sure to bring her favorite mixing bowls and knives. She was positive her daughter-in-law never sharpened her knives.

By the time Saturday rolled around – and Porpoise thought it would never get there – all he had to do was toast the crostini for the bruschetta he’d made the day before, boil the noodles (al dente! Maggie cautioned him) for the already-prepared sauce, warm up the minestrone, toss the salad with homemade vinaigrette and put the apple crisp into the oven. Porpoise was amazed that so many things could be prepared ahead of time; it gave him a chance to focus on making sure the table was perfect. His mother watched him fuss.

“It’ll be just fine, honey,” she said, rearranging the centerpiece one more time. “I’m surprised your grandmother didn’t want to be here when April shows up.”

“She said she had stuff to do today,” he said, wiping imaginary spots off a water glass. “She sure is being secretive lately.”

“About what?”

“Duh, Ma, if I knew that it wouldn’t be secret. All I know is that it has something to do with the computer.”

“Computer? Your grandmother? Are you sure?” Thea chose to ignore the sarcasm from her nervous son.

“Oh, I’m sure all right. She can hardly tear herself away from it.”

“Hmmmm. Does your father know?”

“Dunno. You two aren’t going to be hanging around while April’s here, are you?”

“No, dear, we’ll stick around to say hello, then you can lock us in a closet or something.”

“Ma, geez.”

“Joking! We’re having dinner at your grandparents’ … I think we’re having steaks on the grill, baked potatoes with lots of butter and apple crisp, only ours will have loads of ice cream.”

“Nice, Ma, rub it in why don’t you?”

Thea chuckled and ruffled her boy’s hair. “I think it’s pretty cool that you’re doing this, you know? There are probably lots of boys who would run screaming away from someone so different from what they’re used to. Guess we raised you right, huh?”

Porpoise ducked away from his mother’s hand, embarrassed. “That’s only because you haven’t found out about the meth lab,” he teased.

“Kids!” Thea cried, laughing. “You better go get dressed, son of mine, that young lady’s due any time now.”

Dinner went off without a hitch. April wore one of her signature long skirts and had flowers woven in her hair. She’d brought a bottle of sparkling apple juice, impressing Porpoise’s parents.

“My parents thought, like, it would be a good idea,” April told them.

She was effusive with her praise, though there was the problem with the avocados.

“The salad is great,” April said. “I really love the olives and artichokes, but what are those hard green things?”

“Avocados,” Porpoise said. “Don’t they grow in California?”

April laughed, but not unkindly. “They sure do and they’re one of my favorite things in the world. Thing is, Porpoise, they’re not ripe yet. They’re supposed to be soft.”

Porpoise wasn’t quite as embarrassed as he could have been. He was just a kid from Wisconsin, what did he know?

“I guess Gram and I didn’t do our research on that,” he said. “Just eat around them.”

Over the spaghetti, which was ‘wonderful’ according to April, she asked, “So your grandmother helped you with all this?”

“She directed and did research,” Porpoise admitted, “but left the actual cooking to me. The clean-up, too!”

“That is so cool, Porpoise,” April said, “Everything’s amazing. What sort of research did she have to do? You’d think a grandma would have tons of recipes to use.”

“Oh, you know, the whole vegan thing. What could be used and what couldn’t, that sort of thing.”

“Vegan thing?” April asked. Then her eyes got wide as she surveyed the table. “Is that why there’s no meat or dairy?”

“Well, sure.” Porpoise gulped. “Didn’t you say you were a vegan?”

April buried her face in her hands. Porpoise had a bad feeling about this.

“Oh, man, I screwed up,” April said, actually putting her hand on his. It was the first time they’d touched unaccidentally.

“You mean you’re not a vegan?”

April blushed a little. “Well, I was … for about a week maybe. I like to try new things,” she explained. “But, man, I sure missed hamburgers and fish tacos, all of it. Sorry, Porpoise.”

Porpoise was still trying to wrap his head around the idea of fish tacos, let alone the fact that April wasn’t a vegan. He stood up to clear away the plates and carried them into the kitchen. April sat quietly, afraid to say a word.

A few seconds later Porpoise shouted, “April, do you want ice cream on your apple crisp?”

Maggie, when she was told, was not amused.

“All that time! All that money and preparation!” she railed. “Just because the girl had a whim!”

“It’s all right, Ma,” Brian said. The whole family was just finishing their bi-monthly dinner at Maggie and John’s.

“I’m sorry you had to go through all that, Gram,” Porpoise said. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

Maggie had no idea how she ever got such a great grandson. She felt bad for getting so upset, especially since the whole fiasco had actually served her quite well.

“No, dear, truly,” she said. “In fact, I think it’s time I let you all in on what I’ve been working on the last few weeks, due, by the way, to my grandson here.” She got up from the table and went to get her laptop. “Gather around now, kids. You, too, John.”

Maggie booted up the computer like an old pro and logged in while her family gathered around. She typed in a URL, then sat back.

A page popped up with the colorful title: Cooking 101 for Shrinking Violets. The phrase sounded familiar to Porpoise. Then it dawned on him.

“Gram is this your Web site?” He needn’t have asked. There in the corner was a picture of his grandmother in her favorite ‘Soup’s On!” apron, holding a cleaver and a mixing spoon. Below that were colorful pictures of many of her best recipes.

“Mother!” Thea cried. “Is that your secret recipe for strudel?” Maggie had never shared that recipe with her.

“Well,” Maggie said, “Sort of. I couldn’t disclose the secret ingredient, but it’s close. But what do you think? Isn’t it pretty? My Webmaster says that my site has had more hits than any new site he’s ever seen, and it grows every day! We’re talking about monetizing it soon.”

“Webmaster?” John said. “Hits? Monetizing? Who are you and what have you done with my wife?”

“Bah!” Maggie said, taking a swat at him. “It’s all Porpoise’s fault, and that girl of his. It just seemed like there was room for someone with my experience and skill to share a little knowledge with the kids out there. You could say I’m ‘demystifying’ cooking for the next generation. Take a look at this.”

Maggie clicked on a picture entitled “Adaptations” and up came scads of recipes that she’d adapted for various palates, medical conditions and preferences. Vegan was the top choice.

“Gram, wow!” Porpoise said, amazed.

“That’s nothing,” Gram said, putting her hand into her lap and sitting up straight. “One of the cooking channels wants to talk to me about doing my own cooking show!”

If the Web site hadn’t floored her people, that little announcement did.

“See, Porpoise?” Gram said. “I owe it all to you and that girlfriend of yours.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Porpoise mumbled.

“What? Why?” Gram asked.

“Well, it turns out that her parents are kind of flaky,” Porpoise said, while his grandmother nodded knowingly. “They’re moving back to California. It’s too cold here for them.”

“It’s only September!” Thea cried.

“Yeah, I know, but it’s okay,” Porpoise said. “I don’t know if I could have kept up with April anyway. She’s kind of flaky, too, I don’t know if you noticed.”

Gram hid her smile. Her grandson was such an innocent. “I’m truly sorry, honey,” she said. “I know you liked her.”

“Thanks, Gram, but don’t worry. I met this new girl, Susan? She’s in my biology class. She’s super smart. Dad,” he said, turning to Brian, “you’ll really like her, she has all sorts of ideas about crop rotations and root worm cures.”

No comments:

Post a Comment