Chapter Eighteen: Into the Fryer
"I swear this is the last time we use this damn package gravy for anything," Maria groused as she tossed three packets of chicken gravy base onto Gloria's counter, and three of pork base onto the work station beside the stove.
"I hear that fresh-made is always better, but I've only made gravy from pan drippings a few times, and it was kind of hit or miss. We liked that porky stuff over meatloaf -- but I do admit we used turkey instead of chicken base; it just had more flavor, and we liked a squeeze of lemon juice thrown in." Gloria began chopping potatoes on a large, well-worn cutting board.
"You and your lemon juice," Maria said. "I'm still thinking about that chicken salad and the lemon."
"Ben's idea, remember? I was the one who put it in the package gravy, though. Without the lemon, it sort of tasted like ... carpet."
"You think the pork needs it, too?"
Gloria stopped her knife, surprised that Maria was asking her. A test? She cast her mind back to the flavor of pork gravy base. "No. Something in my head is saying 'a couple drops of apple cider vinegar.'"
"We pull out a quarter cup of the gravy and check that out. Maybe it will make a difference."
The avalanche of potatoes went into a huge pot; water and a handful of salt. "Can I do the garlic? Or do I need to be doing something else?" Gloria asked. "I love garlic, love the taste of it cooked, love the burn of it raw. I thought I was a genius when I was fourteen and mixed fresh pressed garlic with olive oil and smeared it on hot French bread for a snack -- the rest of the family hated it, so I hardly ever did it, but every now and then ..."
"You can do garlic. Hey, there's your test of true love. Make that for Steve, if he likes it, he's your man. You will know that not many men can live with a garlic woman."
"Maria, I've a question about Steve. We've both got the week off, but I don't really feel comfortable about going on a vacation with him. We've had some dates, some really nice evenings together, but spending money on hotels and stuff with a man I don't really know well -- would you mind if he just came over to the house and hung around -- that is, if he wants to, of course --"
"You guys help me buy a new TV and he's got a free admission pass. Until Ben gets the new cable hooked up, the new TV will keep me busy while you and Steve neck in the corners or under blankets on the porch. You make your garlic oil and find out if he is your true love."
Gloria laughed loudly. "Deal! Day after Christmas, we'll go check out TV's. Should be some great sales on by then."
Maria narrowed her eyes. "I want this big badass TV where I can sit up close and see Bobby Flay's warts and gray hairs, and what the hell are his calabrian chilis."
There was a knock at the hall window. "Hello, ladies, what's happening to make Gloria laugh so hard I could hear her down the hall?"
"We looking at your baby pictures," Maria grated menacingly. "You one horrible baby."
"I was not. I was adorable and full of angelic smiles."
"You look like a sock doll with X's for eyes." While Steve gasped and grasped his tie to stall for time to come up with a retort, Maria turned to Gloria. "Yes, you right. Ben encourages me. He is my new inspiration."
Overcome by laughter, Gloria retreated to the far end of the kitchen by the back doors, hooting into the corner of her elbow. She heard Steve say, "Okay, it's on. I'll be back when I can think of the appropriate response."
"Come on," Maria said, after Gloria had blown her nose and washed her hands. "Get the cranberries out of the cooler and mix some walnuts into them. Time gonna get crunchy when we have to plate the lunchies."
"I'm on that garlic, Great Leader, while you do your magic with the Dutch cherries and onions."
"And peppers, I not tell you that part yet."
After Gloria sent about ten cloves of garlic through the press, she minced the only slightly tougher skins and threw them into the prep bowl with the rest. Then the walnuts, after she rinsed and dried her knife, not wanting the vestiges of garlic to add an additional, weird layer of flavor to the chopped nuts. When the cranberries were popping in water and sugar on the stove, she added the walnuts.
"Okay, tenderloin is seared and in the oven. Sauce is made, quinoa ready to go. Let's set up for this chicken. Flour in this dish, beat up dozen eggs in this bowl. This one is for the breadcrumbs and seasoning. Get that leftover black pepper and dump it in with this box of crumbs, salt it and throw some garlic powder -- the dusty one -- in there, too. You want the breading to taste good, make the staff think we are goddesses." While she ordered Gloria to spice shelf and cooler, she hauled out a big baking tray and two large skillets. "Hey, you still carry that little notebook around? Good, make a reminder for us to save some of the leftover bread to make our own breadcrumbs from now on."
Make our own breadcrumbs, make our own gravy -- if we do that, I can see why an assistant cook is handy. Makes me feel a lot better. Gloria wet a finger at the sink, dipped it in the breading mixture, and tasted. She could taste a little saltiness, a light pepperiness, and a light tang of garlic, and she knew all that would intensify with the frying process. "I think this is seasoned enough, but could you double check?"
"It's good. Now I show you one pan of chicken, you do the rest." She pinched a tiny piece of bread from the rolls piled in the service bay, tore it in half, and tossed one into each frying pan. The oil bubbled up around them joyously. "That's ready. Look, first flour -- not too much, just dust -- then egg, then crumbs, then into the pan. Five to each pan, it's going to be about two minutes, then we check."
Gloria nodded and noted the time on the kitchen clock. She wiped down her prep counter, and then turned back to the stove.
"See how nice and golden this is? Now you turn them. Let them go too long, the brown get too dark and taste bitter. Another two minutes, watch for gold, then onto the baking sheet, and into the oven, two-twenty, to make sure they are cooked through. Use cooking thermometer, when the ones in the oven say one-eighty, they are done, we put them under the heat lamp and set a beartrap around them so no one steal them. Got it? Good. It's a pain, standing here tending them, but in the end it will be worth it, you'll see. I'm going to make up a veggie tray for staff with ranch dip -- they aren't going to want a lot more than the potatoes and chicken. Hey, don't forget your gravy."
The back burners of the stove held the potatoes and the pots for the gravies. Remembering one of her first days in the Baker kitchen, Gloria eyed the potato water. Even then I knew that potato water might have helped flavor the soup. Ought to make the gravy taste better, too. To each pot, she added a half cup of cold water and stirred in the package gravies. No heat, not yet. It takes only about a minute for this stuff to thicken at a boil, so if I add boiling potato water to it ... Time to flip the pieces of chicken, get the next round into the flour dusting. Check the pieces in the oven, not done yet, make sure to keep the batches separate, put a batch on the tray, pull out the ones that are done, get the next batch into the oil, turn down the heat a little, turn up the heat on the potatoes, check the oven, check the pans, test the potatoes ...
"You taste yet?"
Gloria nearly jumped, absorbed in the workings on the stove. "No, I didn't. I should, though, shouldn't I? In fact I should have tasted the first batch to make sure it was right, sorry!"
Maria cut a slice from a piece on the heat counter, brought it to her on a fork.
She put it into her mouth and chewed. Tender, tender, oh, garlic, oh chicken, I'm so glad I didn't know how to make this when I had all kinds of time on my hands, I would be so fat by now! "Maria, that is ... unholy. You should be ashamed of yourself, teaching me this."
"I am. I go to Confession next time I get the chance. Last batch coming up? Why so little water in the gravies?"
As Gloria explained her hypothesis about potato water and gravy, she pulled the last chicken from the pans and shoved them in the oven. Maria took each frying pan to the stainless steel counter and set them to cool. "Never thought of that. See why I like you so much? You think, and you explain, and you do, and you don't keep information to yourself to be important. Ben is like that, too. Generous hearts, both of you. Philli-Mae did a good job with you."
"Mae is Portuguese for Mom. Potatoes is done, how much of this water you need?"
"Should be two and a half cups per pot --"
"Bah, I just drain it all into another pot, you take what you need." She poured the potatoes out into the big colander over another saucepan.
Using a measuring cup, Gloria dipped five more half-cups of water into each pot, pulling them onto the hot front burners. In moments, the gravies were boiling, but getting thicker by the second. "They're too thick!"
"Yes, but they're like -- glue!"
"Huh. Add more water! Quick!"
"Got it, there. Okay, that's better. Lemon juice for the chicken gravy ... here, taste."
Maria cackled. "That's great. Now let's get a little of the pork stuff and try the vinegar trick."
Gloria grinned. "Do I get a gold star today?"
"You do, Glory-girl. We still going to try to make our own gravies, but now we know how to make this package stuff better. Also, the potato water makes more gravy, makes it stretch. Where you learn this?"
"Uhh, it was that first vegetable soup I had here -- the one with the canned vegetables that ... Steve bought at Costco? I just thought that even potato water would have made it ... " she trailed off, unwilling to insult Maria's decision to use the can of junk in real food.
"I'm never going to live that down, and neither is Steve. We both have to wear a scarlet 'C' on us for the rest of our lives, for Canned Catastrophe. But all for the good, when we learn from it like this." She took the pork loin from the oven. "Quinoa on, let pork rest, you mash potatoes."
Gloria mashed away, listening to the service window roll up and the clink of dishes begin. A pleasant sound at noon, an indoor chime that signaled a break to come soon, with conversation and good food, and everything in order. When the mashing was done, milk and butter added, Gloria used the masher to thrash the tar out of the potatoes, raising a ruckus of rattling, expending every bit of lingering annoyance at her mother, smoothing the potatoes to a blissful creaminess without making them gluey. And there ya go, Mom. You taught me how to do that. As she scooped the mound of potatoes into a serving bowl, she thought, And you also taught me how to set boundaries with anyone. Anyone. Maybe you didn't think it would ever come to it, but anyone, even you.