Yesterday afternoon, Agathe—my poissonnière—wandered into the kitchen with too much time on her hands. She quietly watched us prep, feigning nonchalance so intensely that I imagined I heard her whistling. A dangerous, unbridled glee bounced her weight from one foot to the other.
Unable to resist, she interjected loudly, “Mise en place!!? HAH! More like “MISERY en place!”
Agathe grinned at us. We stared back. Someone scratched their back with a spatula.
“Agathe,” I asked, “how long have you been waiting to use that one?”
Agathe opened her mouth…paused for effect…and emitted a screaming, reverberating cackle that bounced after her bleached apron strings, out the door. We stared after her.
“That didn’t make any sense,” a commis finally moaned. “We’re not prepping the mise en place. We’re not even working near it. In fact…”, he looked around, “…it’s not even in the kitchen at the moment.”
And it was not. We had rolled it out back, along with the other nonessential equipment. In its place, we had assembled a prep line focused on breaded chicken strips. That evening, we were to cater a party for the terminally-ill children of Happy House Recovery Point. This was a condition of my recent parole.
Now, the counselors from HHRP had prepared us for a thing or two about children and cancer. First, children do not like chicken skins. Children do not like chicken skins because chicken skins taste like chicken. And, we’re conditioned from the time we can stuff our gobs with Cheerios that chicken is supposed to taste like a watery blob of protein that goes down quietly with Cheerios. But, it turns out that skinful chicken actually—well, it actually tastes like chicken. And 6 year olds with malignant, intracranial neoplasms scream like—well, they scream like 6yr olds that don’t like the taste of chicken. Unfortunately, it’s not socially-acceptable to seat dying children in the corner with a mouthful of liquid chicken skin until they come to their senses. So off the skins came. And quite a pile they did make, for lots of picky, sickly children were hungry.
But every cloud has its lining and every idiom has its day. A ruddy glut of chicken skin and my inherent dearth of patience inspired our very popular savoury baklava appetizer.
Let’s see how it’s made.
Arrange your chicken skin in an unappetizing pile on waxed paper. It should look unappetizing so that you work quickly while it’s cold. Melt some butter, chop some pistachios, and pray that you have orange blossom water.
Stretch the chicken skin across a shallow dish.
Brush the stretched chicken skin liberally with butter. Repeat this process of stretching skins and slathering them with butter until the shallow dish is half full. This requires optimism and two to three skins.
Toast the chopped pistachios and toss them with a few drops of orange blossom water. You can substitute rose water at the expense of your baklava tasting like old church lady. That cost-benefit analysis is up to you. I use orange blossom water.
Repeat the stretching/slathering process until you fill the shallow dish (about three more skins, no more optimism).
Soak the dish in olive oil and bake for 50 minutes in an oven preheated to 350°C. De-warm the oven and let the dish rest for 10 minutes. With a very sharp knife, partition the baklava into two-bite stratifications.
Plate with arugula and a ball of foamed lardo. Enjoy.
If you’re wondering, Agathe eventually apologized. I’d forgotten about her in the frenzy that followed the popular announcement of our baklava. Retrospectively, I’m somewhat embarrassed to have taken for granted the continuous flow of flawless fish she delivered in the past month. But when she arrived—hat in hand—to apologize for her awful, stupid, and awe-entrenching joke, I fired her on the spot. In my kitchen, bad humor is as unforgivable as bad food.