Chapter Sixteen: Friday Plots
"You're having your peoples over on Christmas," Maria commented as she plied a wickedly sharp curved knife, breaking down fresh chickens. "You are lucky."
"Well, we'll see how many of my peoples show up," Gloria answered. "Ben might not be able to get away, and Will might be caught up with his peoples out on the ranch. Steve said he'll be there, and Lolo will be. Funny, I'm looking forward to it, but I can't help wishing I knew just how many peoples to plan on feeding -- we always know how many are dining here, and know how to plan. But with family and friends ... not so much anymore.
"But then again, Will said if he comes over with his friends, they'll bring posole; and Ben's big meal of the day will be later, with Mom and Joe. Really, I only need to plan on feeding Steve and Lolo and me."
"And me, if I get pissed off at my daughter-in-law. "
"You think you will?"
Laughing, Maria put down her knife. "I think I hope I will. They raise their kids different than I did. I'm not sure I like the way they're turning out. At least they don't talk back to their parents, though. The other day at the supermarket this one kid was in line with her father, behind me, and all that kid did was argue with him about buying candy. Celio's kids don't do that."
"You visited them ... when was the last time?"
"Easter, last spring. Regretted every minute, too."
Gloria stopped grating cheese. "You were feeling pretty tired and sick then, weren't you? Maybe now that you're feeling better, it will be more fun."
"You are right, Gloria. At least this time, I can go outside and go for a walk around their farm, feed the pigs some Christmas candy. Track mud back into the house." With a low crunch, the splitting of chicken breasts commenced, Maria using a heavy santoku knife this time. "Love this knife, eh?" she said, glancing at Gloria. "I know you do. You love knives."
"I watched a show on line that showed a chef unwrapping a roll of -- a whole line of knives, most of which I can't imagine the use for, each with its own little holder. Wanted them all. If that had been a shopping channel, and if I had had any extra money, I'd have bought the entire package." She shook her head. "But then I went to Macy's and looked at the cost of chef's knives. No way, Jose. I'll make do with what I snitched from Mom's kitchen. Umm, that's a lot of chicken, isn't it? The Bakers usually have whole roast chickens on Sunday, but not that many, right?"
"Food Maxx has this big chicken sale on this week, sixty-eight cents a pound, nuts price, can't pass it up. I tell Bakers, they send Steve to stock up. Bakers like their chicken organic fresh, but us staff don't give a hot damn. This brand of chicken is nice and clean, perfectly good. Staff doesn't have to be snooty, don't tell Bakers I said that. Maybe we get sick of chicken, but I don't think so. We break it down, use the drumsticks and thighs in a braise, breasts for soups and sandwiches and on top of mashed potatoes -- cheapest meat, good eating, freezes just fine. Roast off the bones for broth, too."
"Like Indians using every part of the buffalo. What about the chicken livers that come inside the chickens?"
"This is your problem. You get computer and internet, find something," Maria cackled at Gloria. "And you get to separate all the drumsticks from thighs. And bone the thighs for tomorrow's lunch."
"We're cooking the thighs today?" Well-cooked chicken would pull right off the bone when it was cool, an easy task that would take little time. "Which pot do you want for them?"
"No, we're not cooking them first. Take the thigh bone out before we cook them."
"Maria, I've never boned a raw chicken thigh. I don't know how."
"I show you one. You do the rest, so you get to use my curvy knife. Then tomorrow, staff gets evil early Christmas treat."
Gloria finished the pile of gruyere cheese, brow furrowed. I'm not going to beg her for information, she's just tormenting me for fun.
"Fried chicken," Maria whispered. "Downfall of the Americas."
"We've never had fried chicken since I started here," Gloria said, muffling her laugh with the inside of her elbow. "I thought it was forbidden or something."
"You will understand why we didn't have it after you bone out enough thighs for the staff. Okay, salads are ready for lunch, I take care of salmon and cut up pumpernickel. You chop onions and mushrooms, then get to work on leg quarters."
Gloria hauled the bag of onions from the cooler, along with a grocery store plastic bag with about ten large white mushrooms, putting them on the counter by her prep station. She cut each onion in half, peeled back the unusable skin, put them all in one pile.
"Here, use this knife," Maria interrupted. "You smart enough now not to cut yourself." She put the santoku knife beside Gloria's cutting board.
With the first cut, Gloria was in love. The knife practically did all the work itself, like it was cutting through butter and not vegetable. The sound of the blade in the onion was a shimmering of hissing delight, the effortless descent through the layers a surge of a feeling of power. I could do this all day long, she sighed to herself. A mountain of onion slices amassed on the board. My eyes used to water like crazy when I cut up onions. Now they don't. I guess I just got used to it? Santoku, I want to marry you.
She sliced the mushrooms as thinly as possible, leaving fifteen slices a little thicker, with the stems and caps making the shape of a little tree, setting the 'trees' aside from the rest, which looked like half-trees. All but a handful of the onions went into a Dutch oven on the stove with a big dollop of margarine, on low heat. Cook, not sear, Maria had told her.
"Good," Maria's voice appeared over Gloria's shoulder. "Get that buttery taste in there, then we add red wine. Let them cook down for a while. I show you about these chicken thighs. You hate me for the rest of the afternoon."
Maria took one of the leg quarters from the enormous prep bowl, laying it skin side down, and pointing to the joint. "See this whitish line God put there to help you out? Here, pull the skin back, now you see it between the drumstick and thigh. Feel for the knee joint, cut on the knee side of the white line." Using her curved knife to cut a leg quarter up from the bend in the leg, Maria spun the knife around the quarter and pressed down. The thigh separated from the drumstick like a puzzle piece. "Here, you do next one. Good, easy, right? Now just the thigh, see, another white line on the meat. Cut along that, down to the bone. Use the knife, follow the bone, scrape the meat off. Is a pain in the ass, but tomorrow you will want to have done more of them, trust me. And here, see, where the knee used to be, you want to feel around and get this little cap of gristle off. Your turn."
Gloria plied the sharp knife as she'd been shown, missing the bone twice as she tried to scrape. Sweat was dampening her neck by the time she got the bone out and sitting on the counter. Too long, it's taking me too long. "Sorry," she said. "We're saving the bones, though, right?"
"Oh, yes we are," the cook told her. "I spend too many years using box broth, it's a wonder Bakers didn't fire me. Now cut that murder victim in half, and I show you another trick." On the thicker half of the boned thigh, Maria prodded the muscle. "Use your knife and cut here, from the inside, about an inch or so. See how it flattens the whole thing out? Now it cooks more evenly. Only fourteen more of these to do, and by the time you are done, you're an expert."
Fourteen more? Can't I just chop more onions?
"Don't forget to stir your onions."
My boss, my landlady, my personal sadist. She's definitely enjoying my ignorance.
The next thigh, however, wasn't quite so bad, and by the time Gloria had done seven of them, she started to find a rhythm. Two thighs, stir the onions, add crushed garlic; six thighs, add some water and flour mixture to the pot and stir until smooth; eight thighs, pour the bottle of cabernet sauvignon into the pot to cook down. Twelve thighs, Maria shows up, tastes, and adds beef base and water. Fourteen thighs -- done.
The older cook handed Gloria a spoon. "Taste that."
"Needs salt, I think, don't you?"
"I do. You salt, go ahead."
"Back me up, is that enough? I think it is."
"Good. Now the mushrooms and other onions in the skillet, just going to cook them in a little more margarine, just until the onions are softish and the mushrooms a nice gold color."
"These will go in at the end, right? Make some texture in the soup."
"You got it, Gloria. French onion soup doesn't usually have mushrooms, but Bakers like it this way. Just before dinner, we will toast some baguettes under the broiler with the gruyere, and serve the soup with them on the top."
Gloria leaned back against the prep table. "Thighs are cut up, soup's simmering. The taste is good, but ... it's kind of ... predictable, I don't know a cook's term for it. What if we sauteed some spicy peppers for an optional side in the soup?"
"Bakers not much on spicy, but we could do some, offer them, who knows? You like peppers in French onion soup?"
"No, I have never had French onion before. I don't know how it is supposed to taste, or if it's good, or what it should be served with. Just seems kind of bland to me."
"Next year we try some peppers with it," the cook said. "That's only a week and a half away. Have to buy ahead for the peppers, we don't have any more in the pantry. Hey, you want to plant peppers in a garden next spring? Well, provided you don't marry Steve and move out." She turned away to give the onion soup another stir.
Everything disappeared. The kitchen, her apron, Maria, everything. Marry Steve? No, not going to think about this again now. Reality returned. "I'd need a lot more thought about marriage and about Steve before I made that kind of step," Gloria said. "And I'm too pissed -- sorry, aggravated -- by my mother's rash move to marry to even consider marriage, even if Steve asked, which he hasn't, thank God, so at this time, I'd rather think about a garden and peppers."
Maria looked away, and Gloria noted that her face had flushed. "I'm happy to rent a room with you, Boss. I don't feel an urge to have babies or set up a new household all on my own. I love my room, our house, and I've never had a garden -- and the only time I wanted 'out' was when Mom agreed to rent out the home I'd lived in since Ben was a baby. Does that make me weird?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Most pretty girls don't want to live with an old Portuguese woman."
"Pardon me, but what the hell, Maria? You aren't an old Portuguese woman, you're a warrior. You're what I want to be when I grow up. You own the space you put your feet on, no matter where that is. Half the time I move around, I feel like a nervous dachshund, showing its teeth over its shoulder in case someone is going to pick it up and take it to the pound. I want to learn from you, learn what it really means to be independent."
"I don't know how much you can learn from me. I was sick for so long I don't really know what living means. Maybe we can teach each other." The older woman studied the soup.
Knowing that Maria would hate the gesture, Gloria refrained from putting an arm around her in comfort. "My job in your household is not done until I have taught you the internet."
"I'll take that as a contract, kiddo. Too bad for you I'm a slow learner."
"Well, I'm not such a good teacher about these things, either. Sounds like we're both going to have to rely on Ben -- but we're not buying any vacuum cleaners."
"At least not until we buy some carpets."