By Jude Waterston
I walked into the kitchen at quarter to eight yesterday morning and put up a small pot of coffee. My sister, Janet, was still upstairs doing her stretching exercises and would soon be down to make herself some green tea. In the living room I turned on the computer and put some classical music on the stereo. Back in the kitchen, I realized that the night before I’d neglected to jot down a note, as is my habit, about what I would make for breakfast. We had gotten some beautiful, tart and crisp apples the week before at the farmers market, and I decided on the spur of the moment to make upside-down caramel apple muffins. They’d accompany soft scrambled eggs with a dusting of parmesan cheese and a garnish of chives from the garden. I set to work.
When friends and acquaintances ask what I do every weekend up in the country, particularly during one of our coveted week-long vacations, the answer sounds somewhat weird, and I suppose it is. I know they are probably picturing me hiking in the woods; lying in the hammock, knees up, with an intriguing book propped on my belly; planting flowers, vegetables and herbs; driving to nearby quaint towns to do some antiquing; perhaps even playing croquette on the front lawn.
I think about their inquiry awhile before responding. I even ask myself, “What the hell do I do from Saturday night when Janet and I arrive at our house, until late Monday afternoon when we pack up and head back to the city?”
It’s always been like that. When we get to the house, around 9:00 p.m. or so, we want a bite to eat, as we’ve had no dinner. And a cocktail doesn’t hurt. Janet settles into a chair in the living room with bourbon (neat) and flips through a newspaper or magazine while I get to work in the kitchen. It’s late and I’m tired after a long day in the pasta shop in which I work, tending to customers’ needs and standing on my feet eight hours a day, and I want to make something quick. Sometimes I’ve picked up Asian dumplings in the city and just need to pan-fry them until crisp and fill a few ramekins with a couple of different dipping sauces. Or I’ll make tuna salad with mayo, the slightest dab of Dijon mustard, minced red onion, and finely chopped cornichon pickles and serve that along with some soft, oozing cheese, and crackers.
Occasionally, I make “parmesan toasts” which means turning on the oven. I slice a baguette into thin rounds and toast them until they crisp lightly while I combine grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, mayo, minced shallots and a few grindings of fresh black pepper in a small bowl. Then the crostinis get thickly smeared with the cheese mixture and are run under the broiler for a very few minutes until bubbly and golden. These crunchy treats are delicious with some thinly sliced cacciatorini (dry, flavorful salami) or proscuitto di Parma, and the piquancy of a few kosher dill pickle wedges.
“I hope you can be with me soon,” Janet periodically calls from the other room. “Me too,” I pipe up, grabbing a carafe of Dewar’s scotch and one of dry vermouth and pouring myself a hefty Rob Roy with a twist of freshly cut lemon rind. Finally, I finish preparing our little repast and head to the living room and slump into my favorite chair. I pick up the Dining section of Wednesday’s New York Times, which I haven’t gotten to before then, and pop a cheese-laden cracker into my mouth.
Next morning we wake early, so as to have each weekend feel as long as possible. By 7:30 a.m., I am in the kitchen putting up my pot of coffee and Janet is brewing her tea. Then she is off to the living room to write in her journal at her special little enamel-topped table or sitting at the computer checking her emails. If it’s warm and sunny, she often sits outside at the picnic table on the back porch to write in her journal, work on our photo album, or read the newspaper.
I find myself in the kitchen rereading the note I wrote before going to bed the night before, which lists the various meals I plan to make (none written in stone, though) that day. Breakfast: cherry tomato clafouti and fresh fruit salad. Lunch: grilled, marinated pork tenderloin with Asian slaw and soba noodles. Dinner: chicken enchiladas with cucumber salad. Next, I am scanning the inside of the refrigerator and pulling ingredients from the shelves to start prepping one or another of those dishes.
I enjoy and find cathartic chopping, mincing, and slicing whatever is called for in a recipe. What I don’t care much for are the gnawing feelings of envy, indignation, and irritation I sometimes experience, picturing Janet at ease, doing anything she has been hankering to do, while I am “trapped” in the kitchen. All of these feelings are, basically, unfounded. First of all, I choose to be the cook and no one, believe me, wants Janet to be the family chef, including herself. And she regularly tends to many chores I eschew, such as laundry, sweeping or vacuuming, and she even makes our beds.
The thing about cooking three meals a day is that they occur three times a day, and the planning and prepping has to be done. I’m sure there are people who would suggest I make less elaborate meals – perhaps tuck a few slices of turkey and some mayo into a slit bun or grill a couple steaks and call it a day. But even if I prepared those simpler sounding dishes, I know myself, and there would have to be a nice, zesty slaw and sliced pickles to go with the sandwiches, and the steaks would call out for some macaroni and cheese on the side and, naturally, a tossed salad with homemade vinaigrette.
What I pine for, particularly during the warm weather months, is that the kitchen could be situated on the back or front porch. I think I would be less resentful if I was flipping an omelet under the sun’s rays. There’s nothing for it, though. It is what it is.
This morning I awoke and did my coffee-making routine as usual. I’d written no note the night before, knowing that we’d be having Delmonico steaks and salad for lunch before heading back to the city. Oddly, I hadn’t thought about breakfast. Maybe that had something to do with the margarita fest we had with our friends Marci and Smitty the night before. Regardless, we were low on mostly everything in the fridge, but I had bought fresh cremini and dried porcini mushrooms with the idea of making mushroom barley soup sometime over the weekend. So, there I was in slippers and velour pajamas at just shy of 8:00 a.m., standing in the kitchen, knife in hand. Forty-five minutes later the soup was ready – thick, rich, and just right for a chilly late October meal, albeit breakfast.
Makes 12 muffins
This recipe is adapted from Melissa Clark, a New York Times food writer. I think pears would work as a great alternative to the apples. If I’m serving these as part of breakfast or brunch I accompany them with creamy scrambled eggs to which I add a bit of grated cheese, usually Parmigiano-Reggiano, right before scraping them from the pan.
For the apple topping:
3 tart apples (about 1 ½ pounds), peeled, cored and sliced ¼-inch thick
½ cup dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Pinch kosher salt
½ cup chopped toasted walnuts or slivered almonds
For the muffins:
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup sour cream (or plain yogurt)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously grease a 12-cup muffin tin with softened butter. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, stir together the butter, ½ cup brown sugar, a pinch of salt and the apples. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are tender, about 15 minutes. Distribute the apple slices evenly among the muffin cups. Add walnuts, if using, on top of the apple slices. To make the muffin batter, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ¾ cup brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ¼ teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together ¼ cup melted butter, eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and fold together until smooth. Distribute the batter on top of the apples. Bake until the muffins are slightly puffed and lightly colored, about 20 to 22 minutes. Allow the muffins to cool about 5 minutes in the pan, then turn onto a large platter and serve warm. Take note that some of the apple slices may stick to the bottom of the muffin tins, so simply spoon the caramelized apples onto the top of any muffins lacking in fruit.