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I was in caterers' hell.
I groaned and surveyed the spread of crudits on my kitchen counter. If looks could kill, I asked myself, would this tray of cauliflower do the trick? Actually, the crisp cauliflowerets, delicate buds of broccoli, slender asparagus spears, and bias-cut squash, celery, and carrots looked appealing enough. So did rows of crunchy brussels sprouts, bright-red cherry tomatoes, and small, musky-tasting mushrooms. But there wasn't a drop of rich, homemade mayonnaise, not a puff of whipped cream, not a slice of tangy cheese in sight. And forget dimpled pats of sweet, unsalted butter or luscious dollops of sour cream. Behind the vegetables stood imposing jars of low-calorie dips with horrid colors like pink (raspberry) and orange (carrot). I dipped a spoon into the raspberry, tasted it, and shuddered. Made according to the client's recipe, it was too thin and had the metallic taste of saccharine. A similar foray into the carrot spread revealed a chunky concoction that kindergartners might make for a project on vitamin A.
In other words: hell.
I steeled myself as I washed the last flecks of broccoli off my fingers. Sometimes the proprietor of a catering business has to give herself a pep talk. As the owner of Goldilocks' Catering, Where Everything Is Just Right! I was no exception. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I observed as I wiped my hands on my apron. I'd seen enough clients drool over six-layer fudge cake to know that folks eat with their eyes before the food ever reaches their tongues. But eating with the eyes was a concept I associated with chocolatey, creamy, and calories. Or perhaps flaky, fudgy, and fattening. Disheartened, I stepped away from the sink and cast another look at the entire first course to be served at that afternoon's banquet.
"It looks great," I reassured myself aloud, ". . . if you're a rabbit."
So much for the pep talk. Why on earth had I agreed to cater the July banquet introducing the fall line of Mignon Cosmetics? My irritation blossomed to frustration, a frequent occurrence when the rationale for taking a job melted away. The weather--cool in the beginning of June when I'd agreed to cater the banquet--was now, at the beginning of July, unbearably hot. In the flat stretch of land that abutted the foothills west of Denver, the thermometer had topped 105 for the past three days. Although the mercury in our mountain town of Aspen Meadow, forty miles west of Denver, had fluctuated only in the upper nineties, that was still unseasonably warm. Definitely too hot, I had discovered, to be mucking around in the kitchen taste-testing food made with buttermilk and nonfat sour cream.
Not only that, but I had my doubts about the Mignon Cosmetics people, the same people who had provided the dip recipes. I mean, did they really think the cowboy-worshipping folk of Furman County, Colorado, longed for a lipstick named Fudge Royale? A blush named Lust? Could people truly be enticed to spend a hundred dollars an ounce for anti-aging cream fortified with kelp and placenta? Whose placenta, I wanted to ask rod-thin, pale-haired Harriet Wells, the senior sales associate who'd hired me to do the banquet. I agreed with Harriet that the more sophisticated, well-heeled customers would enjoy making their purchases in the magnificently refurbished department store of a remodeled mall, where the effects of aging, at least on a building, had been painstakingly eradicated. But structures, I pointed out to Harriet, could be restored. People are another matter.
On the other hand, maybe I was wrong. Women, Harriet Wells told me, crave the idea of fudge on their lips. And, she went on, the word lust makes them at least think of blushing. What was worse, my thirteen-year-old son Arch had recently watched a television special on advertising. To my dismay, he had dutifully reported back an ad maven's statement: Make a woman insecure enough, and you can sell her anything.
Well. I must have made Harriet Wells and the Mignon Cosmetics Company feel pretty insecure, because I was catering their banquet at an enormous premium over my cost. The high compensation I would receive had been a compromise over their strict lowfat requirement, and the fact that, over my objections, they'd supplied half the recipes for what they wanted, including the two horrid dips. For their requests for an unusual appetizer, an array of breads, and a chocolate dessert, I'd developed new recipes. At that, however, I'd put my foot down: No mashed lentils, no margarine, no egg substitute. To my delight, the appetizer and the muffin recipes I'd come up with were quite delicious, especially if no one mentioned they were lowfat. But the dessert effort had demanded a serious undermining of my cooking standards. I'd gone through seven dozen egg whites trying to develop a recipe for chocolate torte with no butter.
Perhaps hell was not strong enough.
"Goldy, it does look great," said Julian Teller, my assistant. Wallowing in fat-free self-pity, I had been oblivious of his entrance. Julian marched briskly toward the counter, dipped a spatula into the shocking-pink dip, leaned his broad shoulders and blond, sides-shaven head downward, and sniffed. The "mmm-mmm" noise he made deep in his throat was unconvincingly ecstatic. Compact and muscled from a stint on his school swimming team, nineteen-year-old Julian did not look like someone with his heart set on becoming a vegetarian caterer. Yet he was. Luckily for Goldilocks' Catering, he wasn't one of those fanatics who give you a dirty look if you don't put grated carrots and soy flour in everything. Julian loved cheese, butter, and eggs as much as any traditional chef.
I let out an agonized sigh.
"It's going to be fabulous," Julian reassured me with mischievous eyes and an enthusiastic lift of the dark eyebrows that he had not bleached to match the hair on his scalp. He'd recently had his bright hair trimmed in a bowl shape to replace his old mohawk-style haircut. Now, instead of resembling a Native American albino, he looked like an ad for Dutch Boy paints. Ready to fulfill his function as server today, Julian wore a neat white collarless shirt and baggy black pants. The shirt had been a gift from me. The bagginess of the pants might have been thought stylish by those who did not know Julian had haggled for them, as usual, at Aspen Meadow's secondhand store.
"Goldy," he declared, "the Mignon salespeople are going to love you." He grinned. "And better yet, they're going to love me. Correction: One of them is going to love me."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's saute the turkey."
HOISIN TURKEY WITH ROASTED PINE NUTS IN LETTUCE CUPS
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 pound ground turkey
I teaspoon cornstarch
7 ounces hoisin sauce
21/2 cups cooked wild rice
8 iceberg lettuce leaves
Preheat the oven to 400deg.. On a rimmed cookie sheet, toast the pine nuts for S to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Set aside.
In a large skillet, saute the ground turkey over medium-high heat, stirring, until it changes color and is cooked through. Drain well and return to the pan. Stir in the cornstarch and hoisin sauce. Heat and stir over medium heat until bubbly. Add the pine nuts and the rice and stir until heated through.
Spoon 1/3 cup of the hot turkey mixture onto each lettuce leaf.
Serves as an appetizer
As mounds of ground turkey began to sizzle in wide frying pans, the scent of Thanksgiving filled my summery kitchen. I opened the first jar of hoisin sauce and took a greedy whiff. Like most people, I'd first encountered the dark, pungent stuff in a Chinese restaurant and fallen in love with it. Hoisin served a double purpose in the recipe I'd developed for the banquet appetizer: Its spicy taste and velvety texture would add richness without fat. I handed the jar to Julian, who energetically ladled it along with the contents of the other sauce jars and a mountain of cooked wild rice into a mixing bowl. I opened the oven and shook the large pan of roasting, golden pine nuts that was inside. At least this was food, I thought grimly.
"Hey, boss?" Julian's blue eyes sparkled. "If lowfat is what these folks want"--he gestured at the dips--"then give it to them! Claire says the diet stuff will be a huge hit. And it looks fabulous. Be happy. You're going to make money! Go buy a vat of bittersweet chocolate! Buy ten pounds of macadamia nuts! Buy six kilos of--"
"Lie, lie, lie," I replied. "You said these saleswomen subsist on a steady diet of caffeine, nicotine, and chocolate." Which didn't sound too bad, actually, if you took out the nicotine.
Julian shrugged dramatically and drained the turkey, then deftly stirred it into the hoisin and wild rice. Although he had been living with Arch and me for just over a year, I never tired of watching Julian cook. He was attentive without being fussy, and his ardor in food preparation was unmatched.
"Okay, okay," he admitted as he stirred. Now the sharp smell of hoisin mingled appetizingly with the scent of sauteed turkey and buttery roasted pine nuts. "So say, today, the saleswomen slug down coffee with their chocolate torte, then step outside for a smoke. You still get paid, don't you? Aren't you always saying to me, what's the bottom line here?"
"Chocolate torte? Chocolate torte?" I cried, gesturing in the direction of the desserts. "Who are you kidding? Ninety-nine percent fat-free chocolate-flavored air is more like it. I mean, what's the point? I'm going to pack up the grilled vegetables. Want to start on the muffins?"
GRAND MARNIER CRANBERRY MUFFINS
1 1/2 cups orange juice
1/4 cup Grand Marnier liqueur
2 cups chopped cranberries
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon orange zest
4 egg whites
3/4 cup canola oil
Preheat the oven to 400deg.. Combine the orange juice, the Grand Marnier and the oil; set aside while you prepare the batter. In a large bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and orange zest. In another large bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy. Combine the juice mixture with the beaten egg whites. Add the egg mixture and the cranberries to the flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Using a 1/4-cup measure, divide the batter among 24 muffin cups that have been fitted with paper lines. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown and puffed.
Julian's high-top black sneakers squeaked across the vinyl as he energetically nipped past the counters and clattered in the cooler for the cranberries we'd chopped the night before. Unlike me, Julian was in a very good mood. And it wasn't because he--again unlike me-- enjoyed the challenge of preparing a lowfat menu. It was not even remotely likely that Julian's good humor came from working with roughage and ricotta; he was hardly conversant with nonfat milk solids. As he folded the cranberries into the delectable Grand Marnier-flavored muffin batter, I recalled how he generally lavished dollops of creamy-anything on every dish he prepared. No, it wasn't the food. This budding vegetarian cook, now ladling spoonfuls of cranberry-studded dough into muffin cups, would have been excited today if we'd been serving steak tartare. Julian was in love.
The current object of Julian's affection, Claire Satterfield, Mignon sales associate extraordinaire, was due at our door any minute. Julian had assured me that Claire would have no trouble finding her way from Denver to our place off Main Street in Aspen Meadow. Claire was intelligent, Julian maintained, in unnecessary defense of this woman who was three years his senior and who had opted out of a university education to work for Mignon Cosmetics. I certainly hoped her intelligence extended to geography. Claire had arrived from Australia with her work visa only nine months before, and during that time she'd lived in downtown Denver. The mile-high city was probably not that different from Sydney, as large urban environments go. But once you get off the interstate and head for Aspen Meadow, the roads become curvy and complicated. So much so, in fact, that the best-selling map book of our area is entitled You Use'ta Couldn't Get There from Here. Did they have mountains in Australia? I couldn't remember.
There was a muffled banging on the front door.
"It's me, it's me! Hallo! I got here! Where am I, the Himalayas? Let me in, I gotta use the facilities!"
Julian heaved the muffin tins into the oven, flipped on the full wattage of his smile, and strode in the direction of the banging. Leaving him to play host, I closed the box of vegetables and turned back to the dieters' delight. There is a reason why weight-loss cookbooks have you serve everything dripping with hot mustard, streaked with Tabasco sauce, or speckled with chopped peppers or red pepper flakes. They want to convince you you're actually eating something. Forget your appetite, see if this doesn't make fire come out of your ears! Of course no one can consume much of these spicy low-cal concoctions. Why willingly engage in electroshock therapy for the mouth?
In any event, I had my own Macho Jalape±o Theory of Lowfat. Men heartily dislike diet food, but will eagerly engage in I-can-eat-hotter-stuff-than-you contests. No wonder diet experts recommend spicy foodstuffs when women are trying to wean their menfolk from their beloved meat and potatoes. On the other hand, nobody cared about my philosophy, and I was defying my own jalape±o theory today by offering classic cuisine to the Mignon cosmetics people. But the recipes they had supplied left much to be desired. So now I was having second thoughts. I groaned again.
I decided to stash two dozen individual peach cobblers and an equivalent number of chocolate-chip-dotted brownies into zippered bags underneath the corn rolls made with--forgive me, Escoffier--nonfat sour cream. After giving me instructions about the banquet, Harriet Wells had had the guts--skinny, washboard-ab guts--to give me her lowfat muffin recipe. I had ignored it because it called for okra. The emergency supply of brownies and cobblers were an insurance policy, I reflected, in case someone came up to me today and demanded real, honest-to-goodness comfort food.
"This is Goldy!" a smiling Julian announced as he held the door open for Claire Satterfield to step haltingly into my kitchen.
For someone who had thumped so vigorously to herald her arrival, Claire, suddenly demure, sidestepped uncertainly toward the counter. Although I'd heard a great deal about her, I'd never actually met this wonder. So I was unprepared for what I saw. Claire Satterfield was surely the most gorgeous creature on the planet. Or at least, she was the loveliest female I had ever seen. About four inches taller than Julian, the girl was svelte yet shapely, in a way reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. Her black hair was arranged in long, shiny ringlets that brushed her tanned shoulders. Bangs framed a striking face that featured breathtaking cheekbones. With her dewy skin, irresistible face, and glossy hair, this vision resembled a landlocked mermaid. She gave me a frightened glance and mutely opened her mouth.
From the Paperback edition.