Patatas Bravas

Sitting on the back patio of Josh’s house beside a bush of corpulent pink blooms, listening to ice clinking in two Aperol spritzes and the banter of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! effervescing on the radio, eating a plate of crackling patatas bravas blooming with smoked paprika, we know that spring is here. We each look intently into the other’s eyes as our forks clink against the plate.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

I hold the coffee mugs in a pot of hot sinkwater, and we hold our breath, hoping the cool, opalesque gelatin will gently relinquish the porcelain. Finally, I flip the mug onto a dessert plate Josh grasps like a blanket for a newborn baby. We exhale to see the panna cotta trembling innocently. I swear it has a faint aureola. Josh adorns the panna cottas with ruby strawberries and a coronet of caramelized almonds.

We return to the couch where Chocolat is paused on the TV. I let my fork fall through the cloudy panna cotta and lift a creamy tuft to my lips.

I remember singing Eric Whitacre’s “This Marriage” in high school: 

“May these vows and this marriage be blessed.
May it be sweet milk,
This marriage, like wine and halvah.
May this marriage offer fruit and shade
Like the date palm.” 

The words of the song drip like honey, and every dissonance collapses into a surreal beauty.

I intend every ounce of drama when I say this is what the panna cotta is like. The heavy cream dissolves like seafoam, and the warm vanilla pacifies the tart buttermilk. Every dissonance resolves in a decadent paradox.

We return to watching Chocolat, the story of a passionate chocolatier who converts a small French town clenched in the grip of a strict Lenten fast to her religion of chocolate seashells and measured indulgence, and I understand the litany of townsfolk as they step into the confessional booth:

“…And it melts, God forgive me, it melts ever so slowly on your tongue and tortures you with pleasure.”

The next morning, I savor one more panna cotta before setting out on a thirteen-mile run. I feel it with every step, but I don’t regret it.

Orange-Date Cinnamon Rolls

When I fetch the dough from the refrigerator, it is immediately clear that things are not going as planned. The dough, which should have doubled in size, is tough, tawny, and covered in odd white dots. I suspect it has contracted strep throat, or perhaps it has been infested by the emerald ash borer.

I attempt to roll the dough out on my countertop and watch with horror as it determinedly creeps back into its previous form. It’s like trying to make taffy from a car tire. I surmise that the yeast has died, meaning my cinnamon roll dough has become a burial ground. But the hour is too late to begin anew; my only hope is to resurrect it.

In desperation, I place the dough on a large cutting board. I then place the cutting board on the floor, place a 9×13” glass baking dish on top of the dough, and place my 6’3” frame in the baking dish. The dough begrudgingly flattens under my weight, and I wonder what wrong turns in life have brought me to this point.

I peel the rubbery dough from the bottom of the glass baking dish, desperately sprinkle it with some more yeast, scrape on the cinnamon-date filling, and roll it up as best I can. I strongarm my way through the roll with a knife and drop nine puck-like buns into a cast iron skillet. The recipe says they should prove again and expand to fill the pan. I am now too jaded to reserve any hope for this.

Josh arrives, I shove the skillet in the back of the car, and we drive to Eastern Washington. Then, when we arrive, I see that somewhere over the miles of sage-brushed hills, a miracle has transpired: the rolls are huddled together in the pan, plump and happy.

The next morning, Hartmut slides the buns into the wood-burning oven. When I finally emerge from my Zoom meeting, it is to the aroma of cinnamon and yeast curling around the wooden beams of the cabin. I pull the hot iron skillet away from the fire and find nine perfectly forged and golden rolls. I slather a slab of homemade orange icing on each bun and watch it deliquesce, listen to it sizzle.

I divide the rolls between my cabinmates, still reserving some skepticism. I lift a forkful to my mouth to learn that the same fire that hardened the crisp exterior has somehow managed to soften the inner folds like the innermost petals of a rose. The tang of the orange, the warmth of the cinnamon, the smoothness of the dates, the resurrection of the yeast: they’re all there. 

I take a second roll and wonder at what unexpected successes can be salvaged from disaster. But I know that this is not my miracle to claim; I give all credit to the Washington sun and the wood-burning stove.

Herbed Ricotta and Mushroom Ravioli

I have named our pop-up restaurant Le Cabine. This restaurant has everything: grammatical inaccuracy, two cats hanging around at all times, and the world’s first ever Michelin Moon. The dining area is the same kitchen we’ve been playing Catchphrase and warming our feet in all day, but Jon tugs the adjustable overhead light down low and flicks the other lights off so that we sit swirling our wine in a brooding darkness. It’s as if the remaining circle of light is a life preserver in the middle of a dark ocean that extends to the deep river valley and lofty night sky beyond the windows. 

Josh slides the ravioli under the light, seemingly summoning them into existence. In reality, I remember poking my head into the kitchen (there is a small window that allows covert glances from the interior stairway down into the kitchen) that afternoon to see Josh and Linus working with rolling pin and water glass over a floured countertop to stamp and seal the pasta. The result is a rich, earthy dish in which each raviolo contains its own ecosystem of flavors. 

My favorite part, though, is the occasional crimped edge that has become slightly too thick. No machine has touched these, and the blemishes are the most delicious part.

Caramelized Shallot and Pinto Bean Tacos

I return from a run glazed with sweat and twirl a dial to bring a burner to life. I sift rice into the metal saucepan, and it drums like hail. I add water then time then beans then fresh ribbons of cheddar.

When the mixture has been transferred to a glass bowl, I introduce butter, slices of shallot, cumin, and cayenne to the saucepan and stir it from crisp acidity to fragrant translucence to complete caramelized surrender.

When the mixture has been added to the glass bowl, I add a splash of canola oil and fry corn tortillas until they are glossy and mottled like the full moon.

When the burner has been let to cool, I sit at my dining table with my tortillas and shallots and rice. Seattle is illuminated against the navy twilight before me, and I assemble my tacos. They are not bold or delicate or miraculous or decadent. They are beige from every angle, but I made them. Without a recipe, without a second thought, I made them.

As I fold the tacos into my mouth and gaze at the Space Needle, I recall my arrival in Seattle. I recall the fresh terror of this chapter of adulthood—a new place to make a home, a new call to self-sufficiency, a new responsibility for myself—and my beige tacos begin to taste like a milestone.

And as I finish my milestone tacos, I recall the night I sat at a restaurant on a plaza in Stockholm five years ago. The summer air pulsed with conversation, and the empty seat across from me afforded a view of the gloriously peopled plaza. No dinner companions, no person I knew, no screen to turn to. Just me, the menu, the city, and the night. I felt a warm swell of lonefulness.

I know there are countless friends and family always waiting in the wings for me. There are triumphs and failures and risen rolls and exploded ravioli behind and ahead of me. But tonight my beige tacos are small wonders, and I have fed myself, and I will have energy for whatever tomorrow may yield.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Your craft really shines in this piece, making me want to be able to write and cook like you! You really capture the magic of homemade food (especially of succeeding at baking when it seems to be going downhill!).

    Reply
    • Gabe Gunnink

      Thank you, Alex!

      I really appreciate that feedback, and it sounds like you may have a baking story or two to tell….

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    As ever, I am awestruck by your words. You are a magician. Can’t wait for the next one.

    Reply
    • Gabe Gunnink

      Thank you, Rosie!

      That is high praise coming from an editor such as yourself.

      And I think for my next trick, I will pull a dangling modifier out of a compound-complex sentence!

      Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    I enjoy this piece primarily not due to content (food has never really been of much interest to me) but on what you choose to focus on. And while you have glazed the piece with fancy and dazzling words, what really shines through are the tiny “flaws” you bring up that bring their own worth and delight. The tiny moments that shouldn’t be of significance, but having meaning to you because of character and connection.

    There’s also a few really meaty reflections in there which are flavorful to chew and digest. What follows with the second cinnamon roll…*chef kiss*

    Reply

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