November 7th, 2016

In Abby’s Kitchen

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Hello Friends, I am sorry I have been out of touch the past (gasp) five months.

The sale of our house was a speed of light event this spring that left us in an odd spot. With the home we’re building not ready until late fall, and a rental market not friendly to short term leases, Bill and I were looking at being nomads. Where would we land in the interim?

While on one of their early morning hikes, Bill was lamenting our housing situation–or lack thereof–to his longtime friend Kyle. Loping the trail, Kyle didn’t miss a beat.

“You can stay with me.”

It was a generous offer from a man newly widowed. Abby, his wife of forty-four years, had grappled with cancer the last five, and succumbed in January. That left Kyle alone for the first time in the house they’d bought in 1975. It had been many years since I’d been inside the suburban ranch, but Bill assured me it could accommodate us. It had a guest bedroom and bath off the kitchen, separated from the remainder of the house.

Grateful for a place to live, we accepted.

Preparing for our gypsy time, we adopted the same attitude we did in selling and giving away our belongings to downsize for the next home. What was essential? Other than my basics— clothing, toiletries, and laptop—what would I take with me? I chose my knife set, a favorite cast-iron skillet, and my fig colored Le Creuset Dutch oven.

Of course it never plays out that simply. There were boxes of canned and dry goods from my pantry. Files from my desk. Our bicycles. Clothes and hats and shoes covering two seasons for two adults that filled two large bins. Even when you’re trying to go lean for the long haul, it still mounts up. Our stuff.

When we arrived at our new residence and began unpacking, our host became agitated. “Too much stuff,” Kyle declared.

“Don’t put that there,” he admonished Bill, who was looking for a spot to set a container of his clothes. “You’re covering an outlet.”

“Where’s all that going to go?” he bristled as I tried to unpack a bin of pantry items.

“Nancy’s going to be cooking for us,” Bill called out.

“Not for me,” Kyle responded.

Ouch. What had we done? It was as if he imagined us showing up with a pair of suitcases, like weekend guests. We were both shaken. How was this arrangement going to play out?

In the whirlwind of dissembling our home, and wrapped up in our own jumble of feelings, we hadn’t considered the impact of this move on him. It had taken a lot for Kyle to invite us into his home. Long before his wife’s death, he’d become hermetic. Sure, we would see him several times a week, meeting up for hour-long hikes in the wooded park. But that’s a far cry from meeting a person on his private, grief-filled ground.

I walked through the still house, a snapshot in time. Both living and dining rooms were museumlike, and beckoned no one. A stack of magazines, calendars, and Abby’s reading glasses laid on a side table in the den, as if awaiting her return to the easy chair beside it. In the kitchen, near-empty glass canisters of flour, sugar, and rice lined the back counter like sentinels, bearing witness to the silence. A strand of dried chilis long ago tacked over a window hung sun-bleached and coated in dust.

Into this place we entered, bringing in our energy, a clash that left me stumped: What had prompted Kyle’s invitation? Maybe there was a part of him that wanted us to be there.

I set my skillet on the stove top, my block of knives on the counter and decided that, despite his pronouncements, I would cook for him.

It began fitfully. The cooktop, an old Gaggenau with two gas burners and two electric, was cantankerous–both gas burners wouldn’t function at the same time. Click Click Click Click the automatic pilot wouldn’t fire and the sound vexed Kyle. And then I couldn’t tell if I turned on the correct electric burner—the knob positions didn’t make sense— unless I tested the hot plate with my fingertips. Nevertheless, I pushed through. I pan-seared steaks, fried potatoes with onions, and served them with a big salad, proud to use spuds and greens harvested from our vegetable garden. Score one for the Clean Plate Club! Kyle seemed to relish every bite. Maybe he’d warm to the idea that someone would be cooking him a delicious meal.

Still, it was bumpy. Some things Bill and I couldn’t do right. Latch the gate. Load the dishwasher. Leave the sponge here not there. We did too much laundry and put too many things in the refrigerator. Some days I’d wait until Kyle went out, and I’d scour the fridge or pantry for “scary foods,” items of his long-expired that I pitched into the trash. Any extra cooking–like roasting my garden tomatoes—I’d do during those times too.

For the first awkward weeks, the only place where I felt grounded was our garden, a sunny patch flourishing in the backyard of my brother’s office. Tending the tomato plants laden with plump fruit, scrutinizing the squash plants for hidden zucchinis: these acts felt familiar and comforting, and had no direct bearing to where I was or was not living.

In time, I found grounding in Abby’s kitchen.

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A kitchen is personal and I was unsure of how I, a trespasser, would be received. Even though she’d left this earthly plane, this room was her domain. In her health, Abby loved to cook. Her shelves, jammed with cookbooks spanning decades, told a story of home and family, travels and interests. Tucked among the classics Joy of Cooking and The Silver Palate, were funny dated ones like Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah. (Dinah Shore!) Several ring-bound regional collections spoke to her heritage: Talk About Good! from the Junior League of Lafayette. Abby had been born in Texas and raised in Louisiana.

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She also had every drawer and cabinet filled with cooking equipment: pots, pans, baking tins, casserole dishes, gadgets, utensils, measuring tools…you name it, Abby had it. Each mealtime included my stealth process of discovery, depending on what I needed at the moment.

I came to appreciate the age and quality of her things. Her first generation food processor still functioned well. While it had no pulsing mechanism, its steel blade, a heavier gauge than current models, worked its magic on my pestos and purees.

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A cache of vintage Pyrex bowls and storage containers tucked in the back of a cabinet charmed me with their turquoise imprint of a farm couple, corn stalks and roosters. I used them whenever I could. A set of stainless steel cooking tools with melamine handles in a harvest pattern became another go-to; they felt right in my hand. The prize was this Hamilton Beach stand mixer, a relic beauty complete with beaters and thick milk glass bowls, which I found just in time to make my dad’s birthday cake.

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Through July and August, I lined her windowsills over the sink with my ripening tomatoes. I found a large basket to hold our bounty of yellow squash and peppers, which I kept on the counter by Abby’s canisters. I didn’t take over her kitchen; I wouldn’t dream of it. But I was reanimating it.

Sometimes, while snapping beans or sauteing onions, I would think about Abby and what she would have been cooking. I wondered if she liked this spatula or that strainer as much as I did. I wondered if she would mind another woman in her kitchen, using her pots, standing over her stove. In a house steeped in sadness, here I tapped into her overriding spirit of generosity.

One evening, I was cooking boneless chicken breasts in fresh lemon and garlic; the heady aromatics filled the kitchen, and soon, the rest of the house. From the den, Kyle called out, his voice brimming with the excitement and urgency of a child on Christmas morning,

“Piccata!”

And then, he was in the kitchen; his flat grey eyes sparkled. A simple dish became an awakening. And triggered a flood.

He talked about garlic, how much he liked it, how Abby would cook with scads of it. How he’d grown up eating plain country food—he was just a meat-and-potatoes boy—and how Abby introduced him to the wonders of garlic and lemon and hot peppers and dirty rice. She knew how to season, kick up the heat. Pride swelled in his voice: Abby was a very good cook.

It had gotten difficult the last years, though. Pain meds had left her addled; she couldn’t remember all the elements of, say, her gumbo or chili. Food didn’t taste the same, either. She relied on Kyle to sample and advise. More thyme? Or cumin? More often than not, he’d say,

“A dash more cayenne.”

I listened, and thought about my garden, with two plants covered in red and green chilis, little electric-hot Christmas trees. I’d cook with more fire and spice.

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LOUISIANA CAYENNE PEPPER SAUCE
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
1 teaspoon salt
50-60 cayenne peppers, destemmed
2 cups water
1 cup white vinegar

Note: be sure that you are working/cooking in a well-ventilated place.

Use a 2 quart saucepan placed on medium heat. Add vegetable oil.
Add garlic and onion. Saute for 2 minutes. Add salt, then stir in peppers and saute for another minute.
Pour in water, stir well and cover. Cook for 30 minutes.
Uncover and simmer for another 15 minutes—water will reduce and the peppers will become tender. Pour in the vinegar. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Use an immersion blender, or food processor fitted with a steel blade. Puree.
Pour through a strainer, discarding solids/seeds, then your sauce is ready to bottle.
Keeps, refrigerated, for 3-4 months. Makes 1 1/2 pints.

Posted in Articles, Gluten Free, Recipes, Sauces, Vegan | 40 Comments »