Reedsy Contest #100
Write about a character preparing a meal for somebody else.
Write a story that involves a secret or magic ingredient.
“Excuse me, but I have a favor to ask. I know it’s odd and intrusive, and I’ll understand if you tell me it’s not going to happen, but I have to ask.”
Stan Giles stood in the door of the kitchen.
“Well ask, I can’t say yes or no until you do.”
The Irish owner of the bed and breakfast he was staying at, smiled at him and he felt like he might have a chance. Maybe he finally had a way to connect with her. She’d been distant, not unfriendly, just kept a proper distance from him. Caring for his needs as a guest, but not encouraging any further closeness, this smile was a first.
“I need to make a meal. I want to cook for a woman I’ve met just a day ago. It’s important because I know in my heart, she’s the one. I need to convince her to take a chance on me.”
“Hmph. I don’t see the harm in it, but how do I know you won’t chop your fingers off, and leave my kitchen in shambles?”
“I’ve been cooking since I was old enough to hold a knife and chop up potatoes for my mama. I’m taking a break from culinary school. I was compelled to come to Ireland. It called me like nothing else ever has. But that’s beside the point. Do you need a demonstration?”
“Make me lunch. Something from the heart, comfort food for a rainy misty day like today. I’ll watch you cook, and if you pass my test, I’ll let you have the kitchen for tomorrow’s evening meal. You’re my only guest for the next few days. It will do no harm.”
“May I take a look around? I’m not familiar with your kitchen.”
“Take your time. Using anything in the refrigerator, the eggs are farm fresh, my cousin raises chickens.”
Stan stepped into his dream kitchen. A six burner gas stove stood against one wall, a stock pot simmered on the back burner, and he lifted the lid, sniffing the familiar scent of chicken simmering with chunks of onion, carrots, and celery. A bay leaf floated to the top, and he looked down the counter, spotting a large spoon, he skimmed the scum off the top, and into the sink. Flushing it down the drain before he took a smaller spoon from on of the drawers to taste.
“I would add a small amount of salt to this, and do you have turmeric?”
“I won’t add those until I make the finished soup. This is going into jars so I can preserve it. You have a good nose, and an educated palette.”
Colleen O’Brien’s stern face broke into the first genuine smile he’d seen since he arrived.
“Now what would you suggest as a meal?”
Her voice was muffled, as he peered into the refrigerator.
“How soon do you want to eat?” he asked, spotting several varieties of mushroom in the crisper. Along with shallots, sweet onions, and garlic he’d spotted on the counter, they would make a tasty soup. He saw a quart of heavy cream in a glass bottle on another shelf.
“Let’s give you a chance. An hour for prep time. I’m quite interested in what you might come up with.”
“Well, it’ll be a soup and sandwich. Something I learned from my mother, but I’ve added my own touch to it since then.”
Stan opened the bread box and found a round loaf or dark rye bread, and pulled it out. Spinning back to search the cold storage once more, he pulled out butter, with cremini, oyster, white, and portobello mushrooms. He set the onions, garlic, and shallots next to them, and looked up to spot a copper skillet above his head.
“If you’re going to make a mushroom soup, make enough to have it for the first course of your dinner. I’ll taste it now, and you can use the rest later. I can already see you understand how to develop a good flavor.”
“Thank you! Mrs. O’Brien.”
“Oh, call me Colleen. It’s been a long while since I’ve had another chef cook in my kitchen.”
He drizzled olive oil into the pan, setting it on medium heat to warm as he chopped his onions. Turning the heat off, he added a quarter stick of butter to the oil and let it melt, knowing it wouldn’t brown or burn this way.
“Do you want help with the mushrooms?” Colleen asked.
“I thought I was cooking for you,” Stan said.
“Oh, you are. I’m playing sous chef. Tell me how you want these mushrooms. Slices or diced smaller?”
“Slice the cremini. Nice thick slices. Those will go in after I sauté them with a little white wine. The rest in quarter inch cubes, they’ll go in with the onions, garlic and shallots right now.” Stan took command without a second thought.
“When you’re done that, I saw several cheeses in there. Take the smoked Gouda, and grate us a nice heap of it, and I’ll get you to add some Stilton and some of the mozzarella or cheddar.”
“Grilled cheese sandwiches?”
“Yes, after we have the soup simmering.”
Stan stirred finely chopped mushrooms into the caramelized onions letting them sizzle as he looked around for flour to make the white sauce for the basis of his soup. The cream would be added later, a finishing touch before eating.
“Do you have fresh herbs?”
“In the pots over there.”
Colleen pointed to two pots with compartments stacked on top of each other. He recognized rosemary, basil, thyme, and chives immediately.
“This is a lovely nook for a kitchen herb garden.”
“T’was the last thing my darling Roark did for me before his untimely death. It’s his design which turned our old farmhouse into the inn I run now.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Stan heated another pan, as he stirred his white sauce, adding a hint of rosemary, and thyme to the thickening béchamel. Tasting, he added a little more salt, and a mere hint of chili flakes. Satisfied, he poured it into a larger saucepan, and put it on one back burners to simmer.
“He had cancer. Pancreatic cancer. We knew it was a death sentence, and it was always our dream to run a bed and breakfast. One close to the stones and ruins of old Ireland, in the midst of the old kingdom.”
“I can’t imagine losing someone you love like that. I’m sorry it happened.”
“Living through it was agony and ecstasy. But in the end, he had his last wish, and I had my way clear to a life I always wanted, even if it was on my own.”
Colleen’s eyes misted as she grated the smoked Gouda.
“We’re going to twist a little on the regular way of doing grilled cheese. I discovered a truly decadent way of making them. I think your sturdy rye bread is exactly right for it too,” Stan explained.
“I’m done with the Gouda, what about some mozzarella?” Colleen asked.
He could see the curiosity written all over her round face. He decided the milder cheese would go better with the strong flavors of the Stilton and Gouda, so he nodded.
She dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her apron, then went to the fridge to retrieve a ball of home made mozzarella. Coming back to the prep island she began shredding more.
“About half as much of the mozza as you did Gouda, and half again, so a quarter of the Stilton. Then mix it all in a bowl.”
Stan took the loaf of rye and cut it in half before taking four generous slices from the center. He wanted large dense pieces of bread for his grilled cheese sandwiches. Wrapping the remaining bread so it wouldn’t go stale, he put it back in the bread box next to a French bread baguette.
“Do you bake your own bread, because this is one of the best rye loaves I’ve ever seen.”
“I get it delivered from the bakery in the village. Moira does such amazing things with sourdough, and her pastries are better than anything I can make. My specialty here, is good home cooked Irish fare. You’ll have one of my full Irish breakfasts in the morning.”
Colleen finished mixing the strands of cheese in a large bowl.
“If you would slice up those Cremini mushrooms so we can sauté them, I’ll add them to the béchamel sauce. I’m not going to add the cream to this pot if I’m keeping it for tomorrow tonight. Do you mind having your bowl without it?”
“We’ll add it in the bowl and commit the sin of heating it through in the microwave. It will give us a good idea of how it will work finished properly.”
“So, you dislike them as much as I do.”
“Oh yes, but there are times when they come in handy. I’m looking forward to the combination of mushrooms you’ve used for the base of the soup.”
“I’ve never tried it precisely this way before, but you said use what’s in the refrigerator. Necessity is the mother of invention, especially when you are cooking.”
“What are you going to make tomorrow?”
“I’ll make a trip to the butcher in the village, I’m going to make roast chicken, lemon rosemary chicken to be exact. Fluffy garlic mashed potatoes, and roasted root vegetables, probably carrots, turnips, and parsnips. I noticed they’re all coming in fresh from the farms around here.”
“I would glaze them with honey and Italian spices. It would go well with the rest of what you are planning.”
“I’ve never glazed with honey before, but why not? It can’t be any different than using maple syrup.”
“Glazing is glazing, you don’t have to wait for the honey to concentrate before you poor it over the vegetables. Let them go for around ten minutes at 400 and they should be good.”
Stan had a second to wonder how this test, had turned into a collaboration between cooks, before Colleen continued.
“So, what are you going to do with all that cheese?”
Colleen’s knife flew through the last three mushrooms as she asked, and she put them in a tiny frying pan with a daub of butter. Turning the heat to high she browned them quickly before stirring them into the bubbling saucepot on the back burner.
“I’m going to let it melt in the center of a non-stick pan. Then poor it into the center of a slice of toasted rye. I’m telling you now, you’ll never make grilled cheese any other way again. Cap it with another slice and eat as soon as it’s cooled enough not to burn your mouth.”
Colleen took the bread to the toaster, sliding all four slices onto the conveyor of the commercial machine.
“I didn’t expect to see one of those here.”
“When I have a full house, getting breakfast for a crowd would be impossible without it. There can be as many as twenty in the dining room.”
Stan shook half of the cheese mix into his pan.
“The trick is to have the heat high enough to melt it without letting it bubble and burn around the edges.”
Colleen ladled some of the half finished mushroom soup into a deep soup bowl. Adding cream, she stirred until she felt the consistency she wanted, and tasted it.
“I don’t even have to reheat it. You’ll have to serve it as soon as you have the cream mixed in. It’s perfect as it is,” she told him. She grabbed a second spoon and brought some to him to taste as he watched the cheese slowly meld into a golden pool in the center of his deep grey pan.
“You’re right. Maybe a tiny bit more salt and pepper, but it’s good like it is.”
Colleen pulled out a stool and sat at the island, watching as he built his grilled cheese sandwiches. The soup disappeared quickly, and he pushed his first completed masterpiece over for her to taste.
He stood there, half wondering if he’d been wrong about how good they were, as she blew on the hot mixture, heeding his warning to make sure it had cooled enough.
She bit in and long strings dripped from the shell shaped divot she left behind.
Stan was on pins and needles as he waited for her opinion.
Colleen held up her hand to stop him from saying anything else and took another crunching bite.
Stan shifted from foot to foot and raised an eyebrow. He stood there silently, as beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Had he misjudged the proportions of the cheeses?
He poured the cheese onto his own salvers of toast and slapped the sandwich together. Pulling another stool out from under the counter he sat and prepared to enjoy his own lunch.
Sniffing the aroma of melted cheese as he prepared to take a bite, he knew he’d nailed the combination of ingredients. What was taking her so long to pass judgement? He tried not to stare at her as she finished the entire meal in silence before standing to take the empty dishes to the sink and rinsing them.
He couldn’t wait any longer.
“This is something for an intimate meal for two, or if you’ve got a patient family, you can put them together as they wait. I guarantee they will fight tooth and nail to get the first one. I think I won a lottery today.”
Stan leaned back against the island. Relief made his knees a touch weak. Why had her opinion meant so much?
“Thank you. You have no idea how much it means to me to have your approval.”
“That sandwich was pure magic. It took everything I had to savor it properly instead of mowing through it like a scythe through hay. Taking a mish mash of ingredients and transforming them like this? You’re a talented chef, Stan Giles. You’ll go far.”
“All I want is a small town diner where I can make good food for hard working people. Perhaps a bed and breakfast on the side, like you have here.”
“And the young woman you want to cook for?
“Melissa? She’s bewitched me. I think she shares my dream. It took a trip to Ireland for us to find each other. Her grandmother left her an old mansion in Montana. It’s a Victorian with a wrap around porch set on a several acres of land. She wants to refurbish and renovate. There’s a spot on the estate where we can build a diner from the ground up right beside one of the main highways leading into town.” He knew he was gushing, and he couldn’t have cared less.
“She’s the young lady I’ve seen you with then, she’s staying at the hotel in the village.”
“How do you know?” Stan was stunned.
“We talk, it’s a small community. I’ll help you with dessert.”
“Thank you, I can’t say it enough. She’s the light of my life in only the few hours since we met.”
“You remind me of my Roark. If we had been blessed with a child, I would like to think he would be like you. The look in your eyes when you speak of her, I can’t help myself. I have to do what I can to bring you together. Think of me as if I were your grandmother.”
Stan did what came to his heart. Walking over to her, he wrapped her in a hug. His own grandmother was gone, but for some unfathomable quirk, the universe had granted him another.