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Clear the decks and get ready for a fight.
When the dust settles, we’ll have a champion.
It starts the other day.
I’m minding my own business.
I’m getting in the groove, dinnerwise: I’ve found a couple salmon fillets with an expiration date a safe distance from “5:42 p.m. … TODAY!”
I’m going make a pan roasted salmon with a zippy take on mac and cheese. Perhaps, for the sake of digestive balance and the need for more color, I’ll add some steamed broccoli.
I’ve got a box of squiggly pasta and one of those packs of shredded cheeses. I figure I can grate up a mess of Parmigiano-Reggiano and add it to the industrial grade mix. I’ll retrieve the extra-virgin olive oil from the cupboard and a stick of butter from the fridge. I’ll mash a clove of garlic, salt the boiling water I’ve got in a pot on the stove and get ready to season the fish before it’s trip from stovetop to oven.
Kathy sidles into the kitchen.
“What are we having, big boy?”
I tell her.
“No way. I’m not eating mac and cheese. I thought I made it clear: no white things and no cheese. I want rice.”
Turns out the only rice we have in the pantry is brown rice.
The reason we have brown rice is I refuse to cook it. Who knows how long this package has been in storage.
I refuse to cook it for the reason I offer my bride as she bustles around the kitchen collecting implements.
“It’s not going to work,” I say. “There’s no way you can cook brown rice. It’s impossible to cook brown rice. I’ve tried, even though I loathe the crud because it tastes like packing material. You can’t do it; it’s the altitude, the relative humidity, the insidious vortex atop Pagosa Peak, radiation from an unspeakably evil experiments taking place at the secret government lab beneath Archuleta Mesa.”
I’m not kidding. Each time I’ve tried to cook brown rice — under duress — the grain emerges from the pan hard and watery, or glunky and burnt.
“I’m not concerned,” says Kathy. “I know how to cook brown rice. Remember, back in college, when I was on that macrobiotic diet? Remember? I ate nothing but brown rice three times a day. It was a pure diet, a regimen practiced by Ancient Sages. I almost died, but I learned to cook brown rice.”
“No way,” I say. “I do all the cooking. I’ve done all the cooking for nearly forty years. I know cooking; you don’t cook.”
She turns on me like a wounded predator. “I beg your pardon, mister. Need I remind you I cook the best kamut pancakes and waffles in the universe? And,” she says, brandishing a wooden spoon like an Olympic fencer, “I can cook brown rice.”
Enough said. I proceed with dinner (the salmon is simple and fantastic, I might add) and Kathy skips the mac and cheese. She will wait for the rice, she says. A delayed second course, if you will.
About an hour later, I’m crashed on the couch watching a repeat of a very old episode of Extreme Makeover. It’s enthralling. Becky is the focus of the show and she is — let’s be honest here, shall we? — butt ugly. I’m sure, despite the little information the program provides, that Becky is a saint, an extraordinarily lovely woman in an interior sort of way. But, she (like me) is awfully hard to look at.
That’s the purpose of the show: Find someone with crumb-ball looks, crippled by a culture obsessed with an unattainable ideal of physical beauty and, via the skill of Hollywood surgeons and cutting edge couture, transform her into a physically attractive, yet psychically scarred swan.
This is America at its best.
Just as Becky is about to bump up to a B cup, Kathy sings out from the kitchen.
“Hey, chunky. Guessssssss whaaaat?” I hear her tapping the side of a pan with that accursed wooden spoon.
“I don’t care.”
“Perfect brown rice. Check it out buffalo boy.”
“I don’t care.” Becky tries on a slinky red dress and wiggles her hips. A wooden spoon loaded with brown rice appears in front of my face.
“Perfecto, big guy. Absolutely perfecto.”
I cringe, she’s right. Becky gets porcelain caps on twelve teeth and starts to act oddly aggressive.
“Okay,“ I say. “You made perfect brown rice.”
“Come on, admit it: I cook better brown rice than you do. Come on, admit it.”
“You make brown rice better than I do. Finally, you’ve found something you can cook better than I.” Becky is doing the twist; the pink tip of her tongue flicks between her collagen-plumped lips.
“Hey, hold on a minute, Mr. Ego. I cook a lot of things better than you.”
I go to high-alert status.
Forget Becky, this is war.
“Name them, ” I demand.
“Kamut pancakes and waffles.”
“No. I make better soup than you do.”
“There’s no way you make better soup,” I say, rising from the couch, adrenaline coursing through my veins.
Kathy pushes me back down. “Oh yeah? Well, why don’t we just see about that.”
She has slapped me with the gauntlet. It is a duel.
Soup pots at ten paces.
So, the battle is on: Kathy will make soup, I will make soup.
I set the ground rules. We will find someone with impeccable taste who does not care if one of us quickly learns to hate him or her.
That person will judge who, indeed, makes the best soup. It will be a classic blind tasting: the judge will flip a coin to select a soup, sample it, clear the palate, then move on to the second option. He or she will not know the identity of the cook.
“Fair enough?” I ask, squinting like Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.” (Actually, squinting like Clint Eastwood if Clint Eastwood was a corpulent, gap-toothed short guy with vision problems.)
As I’ve noted in other columns, great soup begins with a great broth. Kathy, no doubt, will buy something goofy at the health food store as a base for her sludge. I will make my broth in classic fashion.
I go to my copy of the Culinary Institute of America’s “The Professional Chef,” to review the process.
Hack up a bunch of stewing hens, put them in a stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a simmer and keep there for a couple hours, skimming all the while, adding a bit of water if necessary. Add mirepoix (finely diced carrot, onion and celery) and cook another 45 minutes or so, continuing to skim. Add herbs encased in a cheesecloth sachet (parsley stems, bay leaf, cracked peppercorns, thyme, garlic) and cook another half hour. Stain the broth and remove fat.
We’re ready for action.
I’m going to simmer another chicken, this time just until the meat is tender, cool the carcass, remove the meat from the bone and make a forcemeat with shallot, cream, a touch of tarragon, garlic, grated hard cheese, salt, pepper. I’m going to use the forcemeat as a filling in a mutant wonton, kreplach, ravioli, pierogi.
I could cheat and use store-bought wonton wrappers but this is too important a situation. I’ll make my own dough with flour, eggs, salt, perhaps a bit of oil, rolling it out a bit thicker than the commercial dough. I’ll make the dumplings fairly small, sealing the edges of the dough with beaten egg. They will fit on a soup spoon with a bit of overlap — a pleasant mouthful.
I’ll cook a variety of fresh vegetables in simmering broth (the cooking time of each figured with Cray super-computer precision), adjust the seasonings, then gently cook the filled-pasta packages in the soup.
Bruschetta anyone? I think so.
And a fresh green salad with a Dijon and garlic vinaigrette.
Let Kathy do her best.
If you are picked as the judge, remember, you don’t know which soup belongs to which cook. Try to be kind after you make negative remarks about the lesser soup — the one without the little kreplach, wonton, ravioli.
Oh, and don’t forget: One of us will hate you. And one of us is likely to write about you if he does.