“I’m not eating that”
“Gran, I’m sure you’ll like it when you try it”
“Wouldn’t be so sure about that. What was wrong with going traditional anyway?”
“Oh shush. Anyway, you’ll hurt his feelings if you don’t try it.
Mickey was reaching crisis levels by this stage. Pans were boiling over and the amount of smells going on was nauseating.
The new Ottolenghi cookbook – an early present he’d got from the office secret Santa (thanks Jill) – stood aloof on the unit side. The big lemon cover glancing over at him like a sympathetic friend.
“This is your fault”, remarks Mickey at the lemon.
Simmering away in the oven was ‘roasted chicken with clementines & arak’.
The original plan was a quiet, cozy festive dinner for him and his new girlfriend. If two months is still new.
Turning back two hours, he gets a call. “Mickey, love, bit of a change, my Mum & Dad, their toilet’s playing up again so they’ll be joining us. And Gran & Grandad. Hope it’s alright. They’re excited to meet you!
That’s the plan gone then. He could say no, he thinks. Yes, that’s it, he’ll ring back. He kids himself. No good karma from hungry grandparents and bursting bladders.
“Alright, think Mickey”, he thought.
Obviously he was out of his depth with his avant-garde menu long before the extra guests had materialised, but they definitely didn’t help the situation.
He’d already gone through the task of searching up what arak is (turns out it’s like ouzo) and decided he had gone too far to turn back now. All the ingredients were also primed and ready in the fridge. Well, enough for the two of them anyway.
The parents had picked the grandparents up on the drive over. The dad stood before him, looking eager to get in. He could see over his shoulder as the older two piled out the back of the car, looking dangerously fragile. The mum was pulling something out of the car boot.
“Pleased to meet you Mickey”
“Pleased to meet you too. Come in, lounge is through there”
He went the other way, looking for the bathroom.
The other three followed after a few moments. A friendly nod, greeting, and elbow bump later, the four were now all seated in the lounge. The mum pulled out some hors d’oeuvres from a bag and proceeded to place them on the coffee table. “Wasn’t sure what you had so I took a few things from home”. Mickey brought out some Aubergine and Miso sliders to accompany the crackers and salted peanuts that now lay on the table. “Just threw a few small things together”
Sharp look from the mother. Was he competing? He thought about it.
In reality, he was happy they were filling up on peanuts. He knew a small miracle would be needed to stretch the next courses into enough for six.
“Be down in a minute love”
The four of them were looking up at him, like they were waiting for something to start.
“She’ll be down in a minute. Something to drink?”
“I am thirsty” said the gran.
“Well then, I’ll be right back”
Excellent. He was out. They seemed friendly enough. Not big talkers though. After all being informed where the restroom is and when dinner was, it seemed he had already answered all their questions.
The girlfriend, now downstairs, was greeting her family. That’d be a good while he thought, so he returned to action stations.
The starter he’d planned for the two had become the competitive hors d’oeuvres, so one course down already.
Onto the main. The organic free-ranged chicken he’d proudly picked up from the farm shop in the high-street this morning was perched in the centre of the fridge.
The morning’s pride slowly turned to agitation as he joked to himself that organic just translated to smaller and more expensive.
He worked out he’d need 1.5kg to make it for 6. If he was vegetarian, he could push it to 1.2kg. Checking the label – it’d still be 600g short. Perhaps they’re vegetarian? That’d be one option. They could well be, he thought. He looked at the sweet potatoes wrinkling away in the oven and hoped they weren’t.
He stared into the fridge. Less organic chickens in there than he had hoped for, typical. He thought about the pair of Magnums sitting in the freezer below, though that was a problem for later. The remnants of a KFC Zinger meal he’d treated himself to on the way home from the shop lay on the bottom of the fridge. Could he? After scraping off the mayo and skinning the bird for the second time in its life, he sliced it up.
The organic was laid out next to its less well-off counterpart like ying and yang on the carving board. A sprinkle of brown sugar and some oregano for good measure, the two unlikely friends were then scraped off the board into a bowl to marinate for however long.
He glanced over at the windowsill. The fruit bowl looked desolate. A solitary clementine glanced back. The satsuma he’d smiled at this morning as he pulled it out his stocking had already used been diced and sprinkled over the sliders. Used the emergency fruit too early, he thought.
After deciding the flavour is pretty much just in the juice anyway, Mickey grabbed into the fridge and returned to pour the rest of the morning’s Tropicana into the roasting tin ¬¬– extra pleased to see he bought the one with the orange bits left in.
Marination time over, the bowl was turned upside down and the chunks took their final flight – landing in the tin with a gentle splash.
“Lot of liquid,” he admitted, and opened the oven door.
The wet bird, floating like poultry islands in a sticky cocktail sea, was thrust onto the middle rack. The tray of sweet potato wedges laying on the rack below enjoying a brief shower as it slid in, before returning to over-cooking.
The nice Chateau du Pape he’d got to celebrate the evening had been drained at this point and the demi-sec (last year’s office gift) was starting to be poured. For 89 years old, that gran of hers drinks like a fish.
“We’ll stick with wine thanks”, came the unanimous verdict.
Knowing that the demi-sec was already scrapping the back of the cupboard, he realised he should have rephrased the question.
Time to check on the bird.
He pulled the oven door open a tad and peaked in. Poor decision, heatwave to the face. He went in for a second attempt. The liquid pool hadn’t reduced as much as he’d liked. “Give it a few more minutes.” He took out the sweet potato wedges, having now been roasted and steamed.
A quick swing by the lounge to review the situation. Still five there. No decrease, though also positively no increase either. The octogenarians and potential parents-in-law were looking restless. The vino had dried up by this point and they hadn’t warmed to the selection of cans Mickey had pulled from the fridge.
Time for the show stopper. Now or never. Or later. But mainly now.
Oven swung open, steam dodged and tin retrieved. Mickey navigated the boiling juice dish over to the sink where he’d readied the sieve. He filtered his main course; catching the sauce in a pot below. The vague filet figures slowly emerged like an archaeological dig. They hadn’t dissolved which was a plus, though the colour was a concern. Difficult to know if it was all cooked. He knew some was at least thanks to the Colonel. The rest was anyone’s guess.
He put the plates shortly in the oven to preheat. If he was to poison them, he thought, at least it’d be warm poison.
He poured the sauce into a gravy boat, leaving a little in the pan to have a taste. Somewhat nice, some spice going on there, though still distinctively Tropicana. He stuck a spoon of mustard into the boat and wiggled it around.
He looked back at Ottolenghi for the plating instructions. Realising his free styling had distinctly changed the nature of the dish, he laid the book back down on the grounds that the picture was, modestly, unattainable, though not before noting he’d missed one of the titular ingredients.
He’d checked his local shop earlier that day and asked where he’d find arak. The bloke recommended him to check a map. Mickey didn’t get it. He was running late anyway and still wanted to get something to eat on the way home so he asked for a bottle ouzo after all. “Fresh out I’m afraid”, the shopkeeper said, though brought forward a bottle of Sambuca and put it on the counter, “more or less though”. Mickey had nodded and paid.
Step 2 of the recipe had now been postponded to step 7, or 8? He’d left that path an age ago. Mickey had shut his eyes as this point as he poured the Sambuca into the gravy boat, and gave an extra wiggle of the spoon to bind it all together, pushing a few orange passengers overboard as he went.
Plates out the oven. Hands under cold water.
Minimalism was going to be his design. Sweet potato on the left, chicken on the right, sauce to serve at the table. No need to be fancy.
Minimalistic was definitely the word, having realised that everything was the same ****** colour.
The food was set out on the table. Each plate accompanied by a fresh glass of water. Bless the endless supply that is the tap.
He started to consider what he’d do if one of his guests did actually die. His girlfriend would be definitely upset, most likely for a long time.
She was at the opposite end of the table, discussing something with her Gran who was sat next to her.
Big smile. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you all. Please, enjoy”
First published Online, December 2020. Newsletter 2. Image: Lemon (Glitch)