“A recipe has no soul. You as the cook must bring the soul to the recipe.”
- Sage - 1 bunch, leaves picked
I would pluck off the sage leaves and throw them into the pan with the browning butter, carefully watching to make sure it wouldn’t burn. Across the stove the water would come to a rapid boil, my older brother throwing in the pasta. “Come on, Clem!” He would shout, the mess of mashed potatoes from yesterday’s frits turned into today’s gnocchi. “Turn the heat off.”
I would barely be done picking off the leaves and letting them crisp when Bartlett would throw the steaming hot gnocchi into my tiny saucepan. “Clementine, honestly,” he’d say, rolling his eyes. “The butter is nearly burnt now. And why are there olives out - you know I dislike olives. You need to listen to my instructions.”
The hot butter splashed against my eye, but I would just simply nod. Bartlett would laugh, finally turning to notice my blinking eye. “Clem, I’m sorry, but you just have to listen.” He pauses, sighing. He gets an ice pack from the freezer and puts it on my eye. I nod again, feeling the burn numb away from the cold ice.
He smiles, taking a bite of the hot gnocchi. “This is good, Clemmy,” he says, using a nickname I always hated. “Almost burnt, but good. You should cook with me more often.”
I nod once more, taking off the ice pack to reveal a tiny little scar.
- Lavender - 2 springs, finely chopped
I squeeze a singly lemon, letting all the little bits of pulp and seeds drop down to the bottom of the glass. I want to strain out the seeds, but I can’t without also catching the pulp. I like the pulp - It tastes sour, but I like the pop of flavor it brings to the drink.
Carefully, I pick up Bartlett’s knife, holding the brown handle the way he taught me to, my finger on top of the blade so it doesn’t get cut. “You don’t want another scar, Clemmy,” I remember him warning me. I start to cut the little lavender flowers, flowers I had just picked from our garden out back. They smell like spring, their buds exploding all over the cutting board. I mix them in with the lemon, letting the flavors unite together.
I’m tempted to taste it, but I know it will be sour. I add the sugar and water, and let a nice tea bag steep in the mixture. The tea is fine on it’s own, but I like my lemonade sweet, with the sour pulp.
I stare at the glass, watching it, hoping that the little lavender pieces and sweet tea will develop flavor in the lemon juice faster so I can enjoy the drink in the garden with the pretty lavender flowers and my brother.
I hope he’ll be back soon from work.
The tea continues to steep, and I wait.
- Rosemary - 1 tsp, ground
I never can find ground rosemary, but Bartlett managed to get it. At the restaurant, he says, they use it so the customers don’t get the sprigs stuck in their teeth. He says they can just chop it finely, but the new chefs don’t have the best cutting skills, so they buy it ground. I smile, because I never liked cutting rosemary anyway.
The ground rosemary smells earthy and nice, like wood. Not wood like the trees outside, but rather the scent of the hearth fire in the evening, logs burning off an apple scent. Fruity, but also dark and bitter, like smoke.
I love it.
- Basil - 1 cup, chiffonade.
Bartlett hands over the bushel of basil, a large smile coming across his face. “For you, Clem,” he says, remembering that I’ve outgrown Clemmy. “To practice your knife cuts.”
I nod, silently picking up the knife. He continues to talk, but I’m not fully listening. I just focus on the little waves of basil I make, throwing them into the large pot with the tomatoes and other herbs. He says something about the garden out back, and how he’ll miss my lavender teas with the woody aromas. I laugh, brushing my hair away from my face.
“But you’ll still be here,” I say with a smile. “You’re just going to work.”
He sighs, taking the knife away from me. I notice how callused his hands are, from holding the different knives at the restaurant. Little scratches are sprinkled across his fingers, too. “Clem, were you listening at all?” Just like all those years ago, with the sage. I hardly listen. “I just told you, I’m joining the military.”
“The military?” I ask, looking up at my brother. I blink in confusion. “But why? Don’t you want to be a great chef?”
He laughs. “No, Clementine,” he says, using my full name. “I want to do this. You can be the chef from now on.”
I stare into his eyes, hoping for a smile or any sense of joy, but all I can see is determination. “Okay,” I say, running over to hug him. I squeeze him tight against me, hoping that if he realizes how much I’ll miss him he’ll change his mind. “Okay.”
I look over at Bartlett’s hands again, caked in calluses. I think about that splatter of butter on my eye, making a little scar still visible to this day.
I never realized how taxing it was to be a chef.
- Anise - 2 seeds, whole
Anise is a strong flavor, but I like it. It brings out the natural sweetness of apricot and the tartness of green apple. I start thinly slicing my fruits, letting them sit in a mixture of sugar and water before adding in my cinnamon, vanilla, and cardamon. I like my apple pies to have a nice spice to them, but still be tart and sweet.
Technically, this is more of a tart, and less of a pie, but I like my tarts wider, so I use a pie pan. This way, each slice has apricot and apple.
I roll out the top dough piece, crimping the sides and then laying a single anise seed on top of the pie. One is already in there for flavor, but I like it as a decoration, too. It almost looks like a dahlia, yet another flower in our garden.
I gently place my pie in the bottom rack of the oven, hoping it doesn’t burn and cause more scars.
- Onion - 1, diced
I grab Bartlett’s knife from the counter, carefully running my fingers along the blade. If there’s one thing my brother taught me, it’s that you should never use a dull tool. He left the knife with me when he left, but I haven’t used it at all.
I missed this knife. It cuts so much finer than my mother’s, and it feels just like an extension to my hand. I get an onion from the fridge, holding it steadily on one end of the cutting board. Silently, I begin to dice.
My tears begin to flow, like little drops of dew of flowers in the morning. I wipe them away, holding the knife to make sure it doesn’t slip.
They keep coming.
I try letting them fall, but I know it won’t be good for the food. I try wiping them away again, but my fingers have onion rubbed all over them and irritate my eyes. I could ask Bartlett to do the chopping, but I know he’s gone now, gone far away. I have no choice but to stop cooking.
The tears don’t stop falling.
- Juniper, ¼ cup, smashed
The recipe says to smash the berries, so I grab the little mortar and pestle Bartlett kept in the cupboard. He always insisted on keeping it, even after mother bought him a brand new food processor. “Real food is ground by hand,” he would insist, though he would never buy grains, skipping right to the flour stage. I know that at the restaurant they grind with the food processor, too, but nevertheless, I want to follow my brother’s advice.
I hold the little handle of the pestle and take a deep breath before I bring it down onto the berries. Junipers grow in our garden, too, though I stopped planting them after Bartlett left. These I had purchased from the store, where they weren’t as fresh, but would work just as fine in a lime cake.
I had replaced the junipers in my garden with bartletts, hoping that if anything happens to him, we’ll continue his memory.
Wiping away another tear, I continue to smash.
- Olive, 5 pitted and thinly sliced
I bring out the knife again. I don’t want to use Bartlett’s knife, but I don’t know what other choice I have. I don’t want to bring back his memory right now, I just want to cook for myself. Cook things I’ve never cooked before, things we would never cook together.
I realize this is something I’ve never done before. I always had my brother to guide me, even when he was at war. I always had his recipes, and I always had his sense of calmness washing over me like waves to sand. I always had him with me.
Now I never will.
He never liked olives, so I never cook with them.
Silently, I begin to slice.
- Saffron, a few sprigs (be sparing!)
He never cooked with saffron, either. Perhaps in the restaurant he did, but never with me. It was just too expensive and too rare. I always liked the flavor of saffron, though, so I throw the entire bottle in, stirring occasionally.
I try the rice with the saffron sauce. I gag. The rice is perfect, but the saffron is disgusting. Too much is too much, I suppose, even if that too much is of something you like.
I throw away the rice and start over.
- Black pepper, 1 pinch
It has taken me a year to realize this, but sometimes the most simple ingredients add the most flavor. A simple brown knife that can slice through almost anything, a knife that feels like an extension of your arm, can be the thing that makes the difference between a dish made with love and a dish made with sorrow. A small saucepan with stains of burnt butter that gives you a permanent mark on your left eye can be the difference between a roux and rue.
A pinch of pepper can make the difference between a dish made from the heart and a dish made from a soulless recipe. It is the adjustments you make that give your dishes flavor, the adjustments you make that change your meals for the better.
I add a heaping pinch of pepper to my brown butter, right before my sage leaves.
Bartlett would be proud.