Simple Tips for the Beginning Cook
by Jacqueline May
Here is the one right way to cut an onion.
Thinking of the root end as the bottom, slice onion horizontally into northern and southern hemispheres. Remove peel. Set the northern hemisphere on the cutting board, cut side down.
With the knife—only your sharpest one, the chopping knife with the slightly curved blade and the wooden handle, any other knife and your husband will mock you—cut meridians in the hemisphere to divide it into time zones. Small time zones, maybe a centimeter wide at the bottom, so you'd have to reset your watch midway between Des Moines and Madison. Leave them connected at the North Pole.
Now, turn your knife 90 degrees. Make thinly-spaced horizontal cuts up one side, until the flat of the blade snuggles against the root end. Repeat on each of the other three (increasingly narrow) sides. You're left with a heap of small rectangles of onion, and a core section about an inch square. Ignore the bottom of the core section, although it's just as much onion as the sides you've cut. Throw the whole core away.
If onion rectangles have skittered off the edges of the cutting board, escaped the counter for the floor, gather them with a paper towel to hide the evidence.
If you have failed, if the onion rectangles are uneven, if some are too large, will offend teeth with unmistakable crunch in the finished dish—then lunge your knife across the heap, thwack thwack thwack,
sundering cities, smiting the rectangles into frightened triangles and trapezoids, scattering bits in every direction.
"That's how you're beating the eggs?"
"Yes. Yes, it is."
"Here. Watch me."
"Give that back!"
"No. Watch. It's a wrist motion. Don't move your elbow."
"You are such an ass."
"Yes, dear. Now, look how well that's blended."
"You mean how crappily? Give me that."
"Hey! Quit it!"
"No. I was doing fine."
"You were not."
"Better than that. Come on, let go."
"Ow! That's my finger!"
The battleground is quiche. Ham and egg pie, your mother calls it, for your father's manly sensibilities. Gavin calls it quiche. Doesn't laugh when you make the family joke. Finds your family a bit ridiculous.
Don't other couples fight about the credit card bill? About who left the lights on, who wants whose sister, which genes will make the children ugly, who's too rough on the nipples, who secretly wants the fish to die?
Or does rage everywhere skulk behind rice cookers, cling to the holes of colanders, leave forks a-rattle as it scurries out of the light? Under a Japanese cleaver it whooshes from poison blowfish ovaries. In Italy it slimes the romano, shrivels the gnocchi; calves bred for osso buco take to chugging quicksilver on street corners. Schnitzel mit Angerbraten for the Germans. In Thailand the rage leaps from a clot of larb like a stripper from a birthday cake. Martian mothers mix it into the zorgblat. Chili con carnage. Tuna fury casserole.
You stand aside as your husband mauls the pie crust. You can do pie crust. You may mangle the onions, twirl the eggs uselessly, but you know better than to knead pie crust push-fold-turn. It'll come out as light and flaky as a tombstone.
Because you have been designated the bad cook, because you are not the one messing this up, you stand aside. Gentle passes of the rolling pin, a sunburst pattern from the center of the dough—that would be the way. Not this smash-plowing, this lumpen rectangle plastered to the counter. You watch and say nothing, not grinning; no, grinning only in your head.
The first quiche, queasy centuries ago, was a culinary adventure. Pioneers of the gastronomic wilderness, you and Gavin strode bravely into the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook you got as a wedding present.
"Pshaw!" you and he said with one voice. "Bake we the crust beforehand? We bake it not!"
"Pshaw!" You gestured like mighty kings. "Add we as much spinach as we please! Dry we it not!"
"Milk, sour cream, half and half, cheese?" you both said. "They fight valiantly, these noble knights of dairy. Shall we shame them by glorifying one over its brethren? We shall not!"
When after an extra twenty-five minutes in the oven, the quiche finally oozed onto your plates, bristling with spinach, the crust the limp gray of sodden recycled paper, you—singular—had seconds, out of principle.
The second quiche you made by yourself to show him you could. You couldn't.
This quiche, now, is the meticulous quiche. The by-the-numbers quiche. The cookbook quiche, timed like a Swiss train, measured like poison: four grains looks like a heart attack, five turns the victim green,
This is Gavin's time to shine. Last Mardi Gras you made a king cake together and he spent nearly an hour dying the sugar the right purple. If this pie crust begins to displease him, he'll throw it out and start over.
You, you get hungry. You'd rather eat substandard quiche, king cake with gray sugar—khaki! black! plaid!—than wait. You always end up leaning against Gavin, digging your chin into the hammock between his neck and shoulder. Picking at cheese from the fridge, squirts of whipped cream, shards of leftover chicken, spoonfuls of peanut butter until dinner loses not only its urgency but its charm. Asking pointed questions. Clanking the lids of side dishes that have cooled, stiffened.
None of this touches Gavin. Sealed in the capsule of his concentration like a trinket from a vending machine, he emerges only when he's done, when he's just exactly perfectly done.
"Oh, no. What?"
"It's falling apart. Look."
"Can't. I already put in three tablespoons."
"Roll it harder?"
"No. No. Look at this, it's hopeless."
Here is the one right way to measure shortening.
The recipe calls for a cup? Well, then, you could just take your one-cup dry measure, plop a blob in, squish it down until the crevices seem full and the top takes a meniscus bulge. Then scoop it right out again, scrabbling against the cup's edges like some greasy-fingered barbarian. Leaving chunks behind, a white sheen, skewing your measurement.
You could. But why would you, unless you like lard hands, inexact grease ratios, scrubbing measuring cups under blistering hot water? Unless you hate the thing you cook?
Banish the hate with water displacement. A two-cup liquid measure—ideally no larger, or each tick mark begins to seem insignificant, as though three-eighths of a cup is as good as a half. One cup of water. Take your flexible spatula (your mother calls it a "licker," and sometimes by accident so do you) and gently, sweetly lever a blob of shortening into the water. See the water level rise. Make it rise to two cups. Is this not simple, beautiful? Your shortening remains a ball. No scraping required.
How is it that your pathologically patient husband is also a greasy barbarian, a shortening-squisher? You may butcher the onions, but you know the important rules.
As he finally flops the pie crust onto the dish—the dish you swear is not a pie plate, wants only to be heaped with leftovers and microwaved, fears this doughy incursion—you begin on the rest of it. The prematurely beaten eggs are a tired, oily scum in their aluminum bowl.
You've got the box grater centered on a plate and you're laboriously scraping a block of cheddar down it again and again. Cheese shreds scatter. Your knuckle bleeds.
"Try the other side," Gavin says. "The one with the square pattern. Goes much faster."
"This side works fine." When he looks away, you make the switch. It does go faster. You can grate up as well as down.
"Do you mind if I get out a bigger plate? You're getting cheese everywhere."
"I'll pick it up. It's fine."
He sets the largest plate in the house at your elbow. He rips off a paper towel and squats to gather the cheese nimbus around your feet. You grate faster, happy to see orange flecks land on his shoulders. You will carpet the world in cheese.
A partial kitchen catalogue:
Big knife, long knife, bread knife, steak knife. Meat fork, kabob skewers, corkscrew. Scissors. Grater, slicer, mandoline. Marble cutting board, earthenware bowl, beer stein, pestle, rolling pin. Toaster oven, oven, stovetop, hot plate. Blender, garbage disposal. Drain cleaner. Potato masher. Bare floury hands.
Egg mixture slops over the sides of the not-pie pan, splats onto the oven floor with a gargle of steam.
You don't like quiche any more. It's 11:30. You ate a lot of the cheese you grated.
"Careful," Gavin says from behind you. You sigh but only the oven hears. When you close the oven door Gavin lays his warm, solid hand on the small of your back. Despite yourself, you feel your spine begin to
soften. "Forty-five minutes?" he asks.
"Forty-five to fifty." You hear yourself: always arguing, hedging, detailing, slipping snakily out of the way of his exactness. "Set it for forty-five?" you ask, nicely. You know someday Gavin will make the perfect quiche—the perfect something. You're more of a graffiti artist. An elephant with a paintbrush curled in its trunk.
Long ago, your first year away from home, you cooked Thanksgiving dinner with your sister, and the gravy spilled and caught fire on the gas stove, and then your gravy-soaked paper towel caught even more
fire, a pillar of flame in your startled hand, and you cried because you would never be anything but the bumbling comic-relief sister, and while you were blowing your nose, the dog got into the turkey.
Once, a boy, not Gavin, made you venison meatloaf, and you'd always hated venison, but you didn't hate the meatloaf; if you hadn't messed up he might still be teaching you what you like. Later there was a
confused vegan, peeling back the cheese of Pokey Stix. There was a timid one, who wouldn't eat chicken because it's called "fowl," who wouldn't eat sandwiches because eek, bread touches meat and there might be vegetables, who lived afraid, glassed-in, hungry.
Your first time in Gavin's kitchen, not as long ago as it seems, he had you help him make honey cakes in the style of the ancient Romans, but instead of 4 ounces of flour he told you 4 cups. You baked the resulting dusty streusel, just in case, and when it came out—hot flour in a pan, yay!—you and Gavin laughed, and drew pictures in the dust with forks, and walked to the PDQ next door to buy ice cream.
Here is the one right way to eat a slice of quiche.
Place on plate. Place plate on table, across from husband. Pick up fork. Note for later the pointiness of the tines, the vulnerability of husband's throat and eyeballs. Stab, instead, the not-so-fluffy, onion-choked egg matter of the quiche. Bring bite to mouth. As you chew, glance into kitchen and make eye contact with the rage curled up in the blender. Say, "Mmm."
© 2007 prickofthespindle.com
Jacqueline May has an MFA from the University of Illinois. Her work has appeared in Stirring. She makes an OK quiche.