Read The School of Essential Ingredients Online

Authors: Erica Bauermeister

Tags: #Contemporary Fiction, #Cooking

The School of Essential Ingredients (10 page)

BOOK: The School of Essential Ingredients
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“But maybe you should hold the knife, my dear,” Isabelle responded. She picked up the paper Lillian had given them and laughed. “Now, this would be Lillian’s idea of a recipe.”

On the paper was written: “Take ingredients on the prep table, chop as need be. Butterfly turkey and flavor inside and out, as you like. Make a package. Send it.”

“We can work with that,” Antonia said.

She chopped the herbs and garlic, the sharp knife making swift, delicate cuts, filling the air around them with the scent of forests and earth and hot sun. Isabelle laid the turkey breast out like a butterfly with its wings spread, and Antonia slid the knife into the meat, starting from the center, cutting parallel to the cutting board, slicing each section so they lay open half again as thin, a series of butterflies. Across the blank canvas of turkey, Isabelle sprinkled salt and pepper, then delicate pieces of garlic and rosemary. The two women looked at the cranberries.

“You know...” Isabelle started.

“They need something,” Antonia agreed.


“Lillian said we are playing with tradition, yes?”

They took a bottle from the cooking cabinet and poured some in a small dish, adding the dried cranberries after. The women watched as the berries grew larger and softer as they absorbed the liquid.

“We’ll just let that sit for a while,” said Isabelle, dipping a finger into the mixture and tasting it.

“Dinner parties,” she said, “with little glasses of sherry beforehand. My husband brought his secretary.”

“I’m sorry.” Antonia touched Isabelle’s wrist.

“It’s a pity you have no say in which memories you lose,” Isabelle remarked. “There was this sculptor, later, but I can’t always find him in my head now . . .”

“Wait here, just a minute.” Antonia walked across the kitchen to where Ian and Helen were working on the pasta for the ravioli. “Would you mind if I borrowed just a bit of that?” she asked, pointing to the mound of dough, soft and dusty with flour.

Ian looked at her confused, but Helen only smiled.

“Of course, dear. All you need.”

Antonia carried her prize back to Isabelle, where she pressed the dough gently on the counter into a smooth, flat oval. “Here,” she said, taking Isabelle’s fingers and gliding them over the surface of the pasta, “maybe this will help you remember.”

Isabelle’s eyes lit brilliantly blue. “Thank you,” she said, and grew quiet for a moment.

They drained the red-tinged sherry from the cranberries, tasting as they went. Isabelle dropped the swollen berries like a long ruby necklace across the rosemary and garlic, Antonia adding a thin stream of milky-green olive oil, finally covering the mixture with slices of translucent pink and white pancetta. Together they rolled the turkey up with the tips of their fingers, adding an extra layer of seasoning and pancetta on the outside. When they were done, Antonia held the meat in place while Isabelle tied a white cotton string around it.

“Blame it on the sherry,” Isabelle commented, looking at her work. They wrapped the turkey in foil, and it did indeed look like a present, which they put in the oven.

“Congratulations,” Lillian said, handing them each a glass of sparkling Prosecco. “Now that you are done with knives, you can have a glass of this. The pasta is almost ready. Come help with the dining room.”


Lillian had taken several of the smaller square tables and made a long rectangular one, running along the center of the restaurant dining room, the tablecloth over it a starched white snowfield. Isabelle folded napkins of the same heavy material into sharply creased triangles and set them to mark each place, then fetched silverware and white dinner plates. With a taper, Antonia lit the candles that ran down the length of the table, their yellow glow reflecting in the thick, uneven glass of the old windows.

The rest of the class came in from the kitchen, led by a triumphant Ian and Helen, carrying a large steaming platter. Ian held the serving dish while Helen carefully placed on each white plate five squares of ravioli no thicker than paper, their edges crinkled, their surfaces kissed with melted butter, scattered with bits of shallots and hazelnuts, like rice thrown at a wedding.

They each took their places at the table. “Happy Thanksgiving, everyone,” Lillian said, raising her glass.

They sat for a moment, simply looking. The smell from their plates rose with the last bits of steam, butter releasing whispers of shallots and hazelnuts. Antonia raised a bite to her mouth. A quick crunch of hazelnut, and then the pasta gave way easily to her teeth, the pumpkin melting across her tongue, warm and dense, with soft, spicy undercurrents of nutmeg. It felt like going home, and she relaxed into her chair with a sigh of happiness. She looked about the table, wondering what the other students thought, watching as they ate slowly, and then more slowly, concentrating only on the flavors within their mouths, oblivious to the table around them. Ian’s eyes caught hers.

“Do you like it?” she asked him. “The ravioli?”

“It is beyond good,” he answered, enraptured. “I can’t believe Helen and I made this.”

“Hey, now,” Helen interjected with a laugh from two seats down.

“You know what I mean,” Ian responded. He paused, and then looked back at Antonia. “Do you eat like this all the time?”

“No...” she replied hesitantly.

“You do, don’t you?” he replied quickly, “or at least you have. I mean, that explains a lot.”


“Why you . . .” Ian backtracked: “Never mind.”

“He is saying you are beautiful,” Isabelle said matter-of-factly, and put another bite in her mouth.

“Ahh . . .” Antonia looked down, a small smile on her face.


THE TURKEY emerged from the oven, juices sizzling within the metal wrapping.

“Here,” said Antonia to Isabelle, “lean over the top.” She opened the creased foil and Isabelle inhaled as the steam caressed her face.

“Christmas,” Isabelle said. “My grandmother always cooked the entire dinner with things she had grown herself—except for the turkey; she got that from the neighbor. I loved to walk in her garden after dinner; it felt alive, even in the winter. She always told me that rosemary grows in the garden of a strong woman. Hers were like trees.”

They left the turkey to finish cooking itself outside the oven and went to watch the others. Chloe and Claire were talking happily, enveloped in the comforting smell of chocolate. They had taken what looked like a long, thin layer of shiny cake from the oven and were cutting it into slices, turning them on their sides on the cookie sheet, where, like magic, they suddenly transformed into traditional oval biscotti.

Nearby, Carl and Tom were consulting over the pot of polenta as it bubbled and shot small bullets of hot, liquid corn into the air. Antonia noticed that for the moment Tom’s expression had lost the sadness that clung to him like a signature.

“It’s too hot!” Carl said.

“Let’s turn it down, and then I think it’s time to add the Gorgonzola,” Tom suggested, picking up crumbles of milky cheese, blue-veined like marble.

Antonia peeked over their shoulders. The polenta was a cauldron of summer, vibrantly gold against the black of the pot. Carl was stirring with a long-handled wooden spoon with a hole in the center while Tom dropped in small bits of cheese that left white comet trails as they melted into the moving yellow mass. Nearby, Lillian was squeezing a lemon over a mountain of green beans steaming in a white bowl.

“Antonia,” she said, “can you take care of the pine nuts?”

Antonia took the long handle of the frying pan on the stove, gave it a quick shake to flip the pine nuts that were browning in the heat. A couple more flicks of her wrist and they were done, and she shook them across the top of the green beans like confetti tossed at the stroke of a new year. She looked up to find Tom watching her, his expression filled with sadness again. She gave him a questioning look.

“It’s nothing,” he said, shaking his head gently. “For a moment there, you reminded me of someone.”

“Is that bad?” Antonia asked, concerned.

“No,” said Tom, his face clearing. “It’s a good thing.”

“Are we ready?” asked Lillian, holding open the door to the dining room. They entered like a parade, bowls and platters held aloft.


“HOW do You like our dinner guests?” Lillian asked the class after the first exclamations had succumbed to quiet sighs of pleasure. The pace was leisurely, as each person at the table took slow, contemplative bites. The turkey lay in slices on their plates, palest pink, with spirals of herb and pancetta ribbons running through it. The polenta was a bright dash of color, the crisp tang of the green beans and lemon a contrast in taste to the soft, luxuriant texture of the warm cornmeal.

“This isn’t eating,” said Ian. “It needs its own word.”

They had agreed that no one would pour their own wine, so they took turns walking around the table, filling glasses, stopping for a low-voiced moment of conversation with one person or another. Even Chloe was given some wine, although she wasn’t yet twenty-one.

“I don’t know, Chloe,” Ian joked, “we could get in a lot of trouble because of you.”

Isabelle leaned over the table to Chloe. “When I was young, we didn’t worry about such things. But then again,” she said with a wink, “maybe that is why I don’t remember so much now.”

They would have forgotten about the biscotti, except that Chloe was so proud of them she dragged Lillian off to the kitchen to make espresso, brought to the table in tiny white cups, a crisp oval of chocolate biscotto on the plate underneath.

was a wonderful Thanksgiving,” Carl said, leaning back luxuriantly in his chair as he put down his empty espresso cup.

“You know, I always think a holiday is a lot like a kitchen,” Lillian noted. “What’s important is what comes out of it.”

Antonia thought for a moment, then smiled. “But of course,” she said quietly to herself.


It Was well past eleven when they left the restaurant—the wine, the food, the conversations of the evening warming them even as they entered the cold, dark air.

“She didn’t ask us what we learned about Thanksgiving,” Ian commented.

“Did you want her to?” Helen asked.

Chloe tucked her arm companionably through Ian’s.

“I bet you really liked to take tests in school,” she teased him.

“I just want to know if I have to wait until Thanksgiving to eat like that again. Or if I don’t, will Thanksgiving still be special?”

Antonia came up to him on his other side.

“No. And yes.” Her eyes met his briefly, happily. They all reached the gate and Antonia turned and walked to the left, toward her car.

“Buona notte, Antonia,”
Isabelle called into the night.

“Sogni d’oro,”
sweet dreams, came Antonia’s voice in reply.


Antonia heard Susan and Jeff on the porch before they entered the house.

“I can’t wait to see the plans,” Susan was saying as she opened the door. “She . . . Oh, my God, what is that incredible smell?”

Susan and Jeff reached the kitchen and stopped, wordless. The linoleum in the room in front of them had been ripped up, revealing a fir floor underneath, splotched with glue, but a warm red-gold all the same. A small table covered with a yellow Provençal tablecloth was set like a secret in the bay window; an iron pot full of water boiled cheerfully on the huge black stove. In the center of the room the wooden prep table was covered with a snowstorm of flour and a series of red ceramic bowls, and in the fireplace, on a grill set over a glowing bed of fragrant sticks, marinated chicken and eggplant sizzled and cooked.

“You’re just in time,” Antonia said. “Throw on an apron and you can help me finish the ravioli.”


Susan Wiped the last of the meat juices from her plate with a piece of bread. Her normally sleek blond hair curled about her face in the humidity of the kitchen. Flour smudged the side of her black skirt and she had utterly forgotten to take off her apron when she sat down at the table.

“That was amazing,” she moaned. Jeff looked at her and smiled, reaching across the table for her hand.

“Will you cook like this for us, always?” Susan asked Antonia.

“I think you will cook for each other, in this kitchen.”

“Yes,” Jeff agreed.

“Okay,” Susan responded amiably. She took a leisurely, reflective sip of her red wine. “We
change the cabinets, though, right? Please? Oh, wait—oh, this would be great—do you think we could find a photograph of the original kitchen, and see what the old ones used to look like?”

Jeff raised his wineglass to Susan. “That’s my girl,” he said.

Antonia entered her wooden bungalow, took off her coat, and dialed the phone.

“It worked,” she said happily into the receiver. “Thank you for helping me—how did you say, rip up?—the floor. I didn’t know who else to call.”

“Anytime,” replied Ian.

BOOK: The School of Essential Ingredients
6.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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