DISCLAIMER: The Devil Wears Prada and its characters belong to Lauren Weisberger and 20th Century Fox. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is an AU event in my AU series, Life Is a Banquet. By which I mean, it doesn't fit into LIAB as currently outlined, but it does make use of its characters, Miranda Priestly, renowned fashion editor, forty-eight, and Andrea Sachs, an aspiring twenty-eight-year-old chef who lives in the basement apartment in Miranda's home, where she served temporarily as a nanny to Caroline and Cassidy. And there is cooking. And with an apple developed here in Minnesota, which they dubbed the SweeTango unfortunately, instead of the really cool name I've chosen for it.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To medoramacd[at]yahoo.com
Tasting the Possibilities
By Medora MacD
Andy watched as Miranda picked up her fork and prepared to take her first bite. "What do we have here then?"
"This is 'Pumpkin Ravioli in a Sage and Brown Butter Sauce' Garnished with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds: the flesh of the mature fruit paired with the seeds of things to come. I grilled the pumpkin meat, then mixed it with shallots, ricotta, nutmeg, cayenne, salt, and pepper, ensconced that in handmade pasta to make the raviolis, boiled them briefly, and served them in a sauce of butter seasoned with fresh sage, a pinch of nutmeg, and a squeeze of lemon juice. The seeds were tossed with paprika, chili powder, and salt and baked."
Miranda cut delicately into one of the three silver dollar raviolis on her plate, speared the tidbit with her fork, and swept it lightly through the sauce before bringing it to her mouth and savoring it. The fork made a second trip to the plate to capture several of the seeds. Andy looked on anxiously, ignoring her own portion, as Miranda swallowed, dabbed her lips with her napkin and rendered her verdict.
"Savory," she offered, tilting her head to one side as if thinking. "The filling is wonderfully rich without being cloying. It has just the right amount of smokiness and tooth to it to keep it interesting. The sauce is earthy and complex and complemented by the heat and crunch of the seeds." She finished the remainder of the first ravioli and nodded. "A combination upon which it would be difficult to improve."
Andy knew she must be beaming from ear to ear. Nigel had told her what a nod from Miranda meant. "Thanks!"
Knowing that if she said any more she'd probably end up gushing like a schoolgirl so NOT the impression she was trying to create Andy turned her gaze to the portion on her own plate, playing it as cool as her elation would let her. Spearing a bite of her own, she chewed it thoughtfully and offered her own, more critical assessment.
"Mmm," she said, closing her eyes and concentrating on the sensations in her mouth. "It could use a touch more cayenne and maybe a few drops more of lemon juice, but I agree. Not bad." Hearing a sniff of disagreement from the other side of the table, she opened her eyes to see Miranda finishing off a second ravioli and putting down her fork.
Stifling a smile at her dinner companion's pique at having her opinion contradicted even in the slightest, Andy rose, collected their dishes, and headed to the kitchen, reminding herself that she wanted to show Miranda that she was as sophisticated as the food she was serving. As she returned to the table with the next course she concentrated on walking with a little more style. She might have succeeded if she hadn't looked up from the plates in her hands and discovered the intensity with which Miranda was regarding her. By some miracle, she managed not to fall flat on her face, but she couldn't prevent the hitch in her gait and the minor slop it caused on one of the plates. She felt her face heat, but kept on walking. She had miles to go before this journey would be over and a promise to herself that she fully intended to keep.
Miranda put down her fork, marveling at the complex flavors and textures she had just enjoyed. She had expected the evening with Andréa would be special. She hadn't expected it to be so illuminating. She'd seen Andréa cook before, of course grilled cheese sandwiches and French toast that was "to die for," as the girls said but she was realizing now that what she'd experienced before was the equivalent of watching Baryshnikov warming up at the barre.
It wasn't so much that the pumpkin ravioli was as good as it had been. It was only one dish, after all. She would wager, though, that everything that would follow was going to be exceptional. Because her hair was standing up on the back of her neck the way it had the day she had first seen a piece designed by Alexander McQueen.
As much as she prided herself on being a thoroughly rational being, Miranda didn't take instinctive reactions lightly. Her intuition was telling her that Andréa wasn't just good at what she was doing. She was damned good. Probably even great.
God help her, she thought, remembering other gifted people she'd known. Like McQueen. She wouldn't wish his sad, short life on Andréa or anyone else, for that matter.
She gave herself a mental shake. What was she thinking? Andréa was grounded in a way that he never had been. Much more mature. Sure of herself, of her talents, but not insufferably so. Attuned to the now, the new, the next, but not in thrall to it. Open-minded, eager to learn from others, but staunch in attitude once she'd made up her mind.
Miranda had discovered just how resolute she could be over the summer when they'd clashed several times over things to do with Andréa's care of the girls. Anyone else who had contravened Miranda's wishes would have been out on the street in a nanosecond, but Andréa had managed somehow not only to not be banished and blacklisted, but to find a way not once, not twice, but three times so far -- to stand her ground long enough for Miranda to listen to her points of view and eventually be persuaded by them.
That was more than Gregory or Stephen could say or anyone at Runway except Nigel, she realized. In each case, moreover, her opinions had panned out. Further evidence of the fact that Andréa Sachs was someone extraordinary.
She watched as Andréa transported the dishes from the first course to the kitchen, admiring again the way her ensemble fit her and the unaffected way she carried herself. No catwalk contortions there. Her gait was a bit coltish, perhaps, as if she had champagne running through her veins, ready to spill forth. But she had an inborn grace. She was comfortable in her own skin and it showed.
And what lovely skin it is, too, Miranda thought, her eyes sliding from Andréa's beautiful shoulders to the hint of cleavage revealed by the quilted bustier, then to her toned arms. Delectable, even. She beat back a blush, remembering what she'd blurted out earlier. "Good enough to eat"? What had she been thinking? Women, even delectable wunderkinds, were not on her diet. Especially delectable wunderkinds.
Speaking of which, it looked as if Andréa had finished plating the soup course and
Good Lord, was she having some kind of fit? The easy, natural stride she had been admiring a moment ago had been replaced by a kind of slinky lurch that looked like something out of America's Next Top Mod "Ah." She stopped preparing to rush to her aid.
Never mind. Not a neurological issue. Just a moment of atypical insecurity. Wholly unwarranted, of course, but really rather endearing. No harm done, unless
She sharpened her gaze. Ankles had been broken on the runway with less provocation. Their owners been wearing stilettos, mind you, but Andréa was carrying soup that was probably piping hot and equally hazardous. She held her breath had she just wobbled? She had. She caught herself in time, however. No harm done, except to her pride perhaps, judging from the pinking of her ears.
"How are things in Monaco, Grace?" Andy put the pristine plate in front of Miranda, served herself the one with the tiny slop on it, and took her seat.
"Just something my dad used to say to me especially the year I grew six inches and was tripping over everything, even the lines painted on the basketball court. I was afraid for a moment there that I was going to serve the soup in your lap."
"Was there a problem? I didn't notice," Miranda said graciously, though Andy thought she saw her suppress a smile.
"I'm very glad you didn't have reason to do so," Andy said, laughing softly. She bowed and gave an Iron Chef-like wave toward the next course. "And now served in a demitasse cup as planned a rustic pottage of yellow split peas seasoned with smoked maple bacon, rosemary, garlic, paprika, onion, and some double-aged bourbon for zip. And on the side, a salad of pea shoots and blanched shelled peas, drizzled with sesame oil and rice vinegar and topped with aged Old Chatham's Ewe's Blue from New York's Hudson Valley."
Miranda enjoyed a forkful or two of the salad, giving another nod to its crunch and tang, then picked up her spoon. She may have intended to only sample the soup, but in fairly short order the cup was empty.
"I really shouldn't have eaten all that," she said. "I won't have room for everything that is to come. Honestly, though, I could have devoured a full quart."
"Lucky you," Andy replied. "There's the better part of a pot in the fridge, along with other leftovers. I thought the girls might like to sample some of the dishes when they get back from their dad's tomorrow."
The smile that Miranda bestowed on Andy staggered her. The soup was that good?
No, this wasn't about the soup, she thought, looking deeper. There was something more there. Delight. Gratitude. Open affection. She had never before seen an expression like that on Miranda's face. She couldn't wait to find ways to make those adorable crinkles appear around her eyes again and again.
"They'll love that you thought of them. That's rarely the case with Gregory's friends."
Andy saw Miranda's smile dim. Having essentially compared Andy to her ex-husband's endless parade of semi-significant others had rattled her, it seemed. It made Andy feel downright giddy, however. She reminded herself again to keep things light: Slow and steady wins the race, Sachs. In romance and seven-course meals.
"The next course takes a few minutes to prepare," she told Miranda after she finished her own portion. She opened the wine refrigerator. "That will give you time to catch your breath and to open this." She handed her a bottle of the Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling that Doug had insisted would be the perfect accompaniment for the next few courses.
(Rieslings were often better with considerable age, he had informed her archly, and the oldest preserved wine ever tasted was a German one dating back to 1540. That was all very well, Andy had told him tartly, but insinuating to Miranda that she was comparable to a wine that was going on five hundred years old was not something she planned on doing anytime soon. Make that ever.)
She fired up the grill module on the kitchen's Sub-Zero stove. "How about a little food-related Schubert while we work?" She grabbed the remote for the kitchen's Bose sound system, cuing the Piano Quintet in A Major and making sure to keep the volume at a level that wouldn't impede conversation.
"Schubert was the very first classical composer I liked," she confessed as she pulled a bag of marinating rainbow fillets out of the fridge. Patting them dry, she inserted them into a wire fish basket and placed them skin-side down on the grill. "This recording of the 'Trout Quintet' is remastered from a 1969 performance by five virtuosi, all of whom were in their twenties at the time. Pretty fitting, actually, since Schubert was twenty-two when he wrote it."
She opened the fridge again and removed a small tin and two dainty egg cups filled close to overflowing with a creamy orange mousse. "Can you imagine what it must have been like?" she said, concentrating on balancing just the right amount of red caviar atop the mousse. "I mean, not only hearing this incredible sound, but watching Barenboim, du Pré, Perlman, Zuckerman, and Mehta as they were creating it?"
She turned the fish over to grill for another few minutes. Realizing that she hadn't heard anything from the terrace for a while, she looked over to see how her dinner companion was doing.
"I met her once," Miranda said quietly, twisting the stem of her glass to and fro and focusing her gaze on the sparkles in her wine. "Jacqueline du Pré, that is. After the MS had robbed her of the ability to play the cello any longer. Or walk, for that matter. What a tragedy."
"Indeed," said Andy. "She was 25 when this was recorded and had to stop performing just three years later. Think how much more tragic it would have been, though, if she had decided that she could wait to be great."
"On the other hand " Miranda's voice was pensive. "Might it not have been better for her, much less painful, to have remained ignorant of her gifts? To not have reached the heights they took her to? How agonizing that must've been to have that for such a short time before it was cruelly ripped away."
Andy looked up sharply. Could Miranda be talking about herself? Her? Their ... situation? It was impossible to tell. She had turned toward the garden after speaking and was staring into the darkness there. There was a tension to her elegant back that suggested that she was wrestling with something significant.
What she had said was oblique enough that Andy couldn't really guess where her remarks were coming from, but she wasn't willing to take any chances.
"'For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"
"Pardon?" said Miranda, swiveling back toward the kitchen. Afraid that her expression reveal too much, Andy ducked her head and pretended to be absorbed in tending the fish.
"Yo, daughter of an English teacher here," she said. She poked the trout to test its firmness. "Not that you are all that different. Didn't I hear you the other day telling the girls that they needed to 'seize the day' and make the most of their potential? Mom put it poetically, of course, quoting Mary Oliver and telling me to make the most of my 'one wild and precious life' so I didn't end up 'simply having visited this world.'" She removed the trout from the grill and set it aside to rest a bit.
"That's how Dad's lived his life, for sure. When I asked if he was sad about not being able to run marathons anymore because of the Parkinson's, for instance, he said he was just damned glad he'd dared to run them in the first place. And it's how Mom feels about having married him, despite the tough times they're going through now." Her voice trembled and she fought to bring it back under control. "Anyway As they've always said, 'No guts, no glory.' Having watched videos of her in performance and seen the unadulterated joy on her face as she played, I bet du Pré would say the same thing."
It was too dangerous to say anything more at this point in the evening. She cut the trout into small, flaky squares and laid them on leaves of tender spinach placed on the right-hand side of a pair of rectangular plates. After squeezing some Meyer lemon over them, she placed the egg cups on the left-hand side.
"Et voila!" she said, carrying the plates to the table. "'Grilled Rainbow Trout' and 'Conch-Orange-Lime Mousse Topped with Trout Caviar,' a treat that Doug whipped up."
To Miranda's great delight, after they finished the fish course, Andréa drafted her to help with the next one.
"Take a seat at the breakfast bar and I'll show you what to do." She pulled two bowls from the fridge, one containing small, peeled, hard-boiled eggs and the other a mixture of fresh herbs and ground meat of some sort. She set these in front of Miranda, then came around the bar to stand beside her.
"Your job is to dress these quail eggs in the turkey sausage mixture. Pardon my reach." She stretched past Miranda to grab a spatula from the jar on the other side of her, her hand brushing against Miranda's, her breath warming Miranda's cheek.
She smelled zesty, Miranda decided. Alive with the faint scents of the lemon she had squeezed on the trout and the garlic and olive oil it had been marinated in. What did she usually smell like? She couldn't recall. Did she have a favorite perfume? Had she ever allowed herself to stand close enough to her to find out?
Andréa's voice, disconcertingly close to her ear, startled her out of her woolgathering. "So, first step: spread an even layer of sausage on this square of plastic wrap, like this."
Miranda reached down and gave a sharp pinch to her leg out of Andréa's sight, she hoped. She watched appreciatively as Andréa scooped up the turkey mixture and smoothed it out, the motion making the muscles on her arm flex in a most distracting way. She gave herself another pinch. Mind on the mission, woman!
"Second, place the egg in the middle. No, you do it. Okay, now, pull the wrap together to encase the egg." Miranda balanced the egg on the fingers of one hand and started pushing the edges of the mix together. "Yes, just like that."
"We're making Scotch eggs? The girls love those."
"My mom does, too. Play your recipe cards right, and I'll let you show them how to make them tomorrow night. There are eight more eggs in the fridge. They'll go well with the leftover pea soup."
"Is that where you learned to cook, your mother?"
"Good gods, no." Andy laughed as she beat together some prepared mustard, an egg, and a tablespoon of water. There was such strength there, mused Miranda. Psychological as well as physical.
"Not from Dad either, though cooking dinner is one of the household chores he and Mom have always shared. She does Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He does Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, though nowadays he has to rely more often on delivery from his favorite Chinese or Indian restaurant. Sunday they order in pizza. Bubbe Avigail taught me a few old family favorites, but I didn't venture much beyond Hamburger Helper until the year I was living in Peru. My abuela was convinced that unless I learned how to make empanadas and a proper ceviche nobody would marry me. How about you?"
"My mother, I guess," Miranda replied distractedly as she labored to get a perfectly even coating on the first egg. "It was plain American fare, for the most part, plus bangers and mash, 'bubble and squeak,' and fish and chips. It could have been worse, I suppose." She regarded her work with a hypercritical eye. She was determined to make her contribution worthy of being included in Andrea's meal. "If Poppa had been Scottish instead of English, it might have been haggis and neeps!'"
"Not your favorite, I take it? Whew. Close call," Andy replied. "Haggis was my first choice for tonight's main course, but I couldn't find a bagpiper to pipe it in."
"What is that thing Cass and Caro say? 'As if!'" Miranda waited for Andréa's chuckle to subside and then held up the egg. "How's this?"
"Lovely. Faberg couldn't have done better. Let me have it." Andy removed the egg from its wrapping, dipped it in the wash she'd made, rolled it in fine bread crumbs, and placed it on a rack in a shallow baking dish. After four eggs had been prepped, she slid the dish into the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes.
"Deep-fat frying these would be much faster but " Miranda felt her face scrunch into a moue of disapproval. Andréa pointed at it. "Exactly," she said. "That. This is much healthier. It'll take about half an hour. I need to turn them about halfway through. In the meantime " She grabbed three bowls that were sitting on the counter.
"I'm going to cheat a little here and combine the salad course with the main meat course," she confessed. "It's more of a relish, actually." She removed the wrap covering the bowls, adding minced red onion and finely chopped apricots to the one holding coarsely grated roasted beets, stirred the mixture, and added three tablespoons of pomegranate molasses and a tablespoon of olive oil, seasoning it with kosher salt.
"What do you think?" She filled a teaspoon with the concoction and held it out. Unable to help herself, Miranda steadied Andréa's hand with her own and nibbled straight from the spoon. Taking care not to smudge her lipstick, she dabbed her lips with a paper towel from the dispenser on the counter. They were tingling and not, she suspected, from anything in the recipe. She pressed them together, trying to numb the sensation. "A touch more salt."
Andréa added a pinch, then taking out two round white salad-sized plates, swiped a circle of relish close to the perimeter of each. When that was done she carefully placed a colorful nest of pre-cooked deep-fried potato and yam matchsticks within each circle. "You can fry these too. Muffin tins work well, especially for smaller portions, but I needed something bigger so I baked them in medium-size ramekins "
She shifted the eggs in the oven, reset the timer, then pulled two small, carefully trussed breasts of quail out of the fridge. After seasoning them with salt and pepper, she heated oil and butter in a pan and added the breasts, sautéing them until they were richly brown and crisp, about six minutes. She added a splash of pomegranate molasses to the juices to create a glaze, which she drizzled over the breasts before setting them to one side to rest for a few minutes.
Holding her breath, she picked up each of the birds and perched it carefully in its nest of dark orange and brown, taking care to leave room for
"Timing is everything," she muttered. She pulled the baking dish from the oven, lifted out the Scotch quail eggs, and placed two in each nest. "Shazam!"
"Time to clean up," she informed Miranda. "And pour more of that Riesling. This is thirsty work!" After they washed their hands, they returned to the table, each carrying a dish. After Miranda refilled their wine glasses, they raised them to each other in a silent toast, sipped appreciatively, and dug in again
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