Saturday, March 1, 2014


"... and on Sunday we'll just have gravy" Zee sang in his strong church tenor as I ferried dishes to the table and he made his way from stovetop to dinner table. We were having a family staple -- rotinis and freshly made marinara sauce. Zee's song clearly meant pasta sauce, not meat gravy. But it tickled my vocabulary tester, since my strong British roots have gravy as that brown sauce that tasted like the meat it was served with. My mother had taught me how to make gravy pretty much as soon as I could stand at a stove, and for good reason -- it requires pretty much constant attention.

Zee's gravy, on the other hand, was a marvel of cooking. His mother, I'm pretty sure, spent the standard full afternoon over huge saucepans of bubbling tomatoes and herbs, reducing down that fresh fruit into its delightful marinara freshness. Zee, however, has spent half his lifetime figuring out how to do what the able-bodied do as quickly or better. As much as he let his injury hold him back from his dreams, he was a marvel at figuring out how to do what he wanted to do, to have a normal life.

The gravy was a wonderful example. Let's say it's 4:00, dinner's at 5:30, and you have nothing started. That was pretty typical for our house. With two young children to feed, it required balancing their tastes against their nutritional needs. Pasta marinara was one of the sure-fire dishes in my arsenal. Before Zee, the sauce was Ragu -- perfectly acceptable to my British taste buds.

Zee usually started with fresh tomatoes -- he'd buy the least expensive ones, which in winter were Romas. Those are nice and firm, not a lot of extra water in them. We were terrific Costco shoppers, too -- so the pantry was stocked with cases of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and olives. His homemade pesto was in the freezer -- we grew basil en masse every few years, and he would grind up basil and pinenuts with olive oil and put it in the freezer so we would always have fresh pesto on hand.

Zee's favorite cooking utensil was his secret weapon for fresh gravy and quick meals: a 4-quart pressure cooker. That thing hummed through all cooking. Mashed potatoes, pot roast, stewed chicken, and marinara -- all were instant dinners with the pressure cooker to hand.

So there we would be in the kitchen. Nik and Nat would be working on homework at the kitchen table, I would be helping Nik with whatever new math they were throwing at him that week, or helping Nat with her spelling. Zee would come out of his office about 4:00 and say, "how about pasta tonight, you kids?" They would smile and nod.

Zee would maneuver over to the fridge and bring out the fresh parsley, an onion half if there was one, the romano, and that amazing pesto from the freezer. I'd bring over a can of chopped tomato, tomato paste, and large black olives from the pantry. The bowl of tomatoes was on the counter already, from the weekend's grocery shopping.

It was always a marvel to see Zee walk. He had a cane, and seemed to throw each leg forward with a little shift of his hips for each step. You wouldn't know what his injury was, just that there was something. He always appeared confident, but after our few years together I knew he saw each step as a risk, and that he was in danger of falling each and every time.

When he took things out of the fridge, it was a true concert. First, he'd balance on the counter to pull the door open. Then he'd lever himself so he could reach inside to get out what he needed. Our fridge was never overflowing -- he needed room to get his good right hand on the item and bring it out. Once he'd released the item onto the counter, he could stand up again and shut the door.

I always held my breath when he leaned over to pull out the pressure cooker from its spot under the counter next to the cooktop. When our relationship was new, I tried to do more for him. But he benefited from doing things for himself, and so I had learned to hold back and let him do what he needed to.

However, watching him chop an onion was almost beyond me. So, when I came to the counter with the cans, I would take the onion, the large knife from the knifeblock, and one of the cutting boards, and start chopping it up. Zee would take the other cutting board and a serrated knife to roughly chop up the tomatoes. Every two tomatoes, he would lift his board and tip the pieces and juice into the pressure cooker. I'd chop up half the onion and add it to the pot. Then I'd open the tins and pour them in. If it was Roma tomatoes, the juice from the olives went in; otherwise, only half of it, with the rest disposed of. Zee would spoon out a tablespoon of the pesto into the pot, pour in a glug of olive oil from the bottle kept on the stovetop, and take the bottle of cooking wine from the counter to add a glug of that, too. And last, before closing the cooker, he'd rough-cut the parsley and add a big handful of that.

With the heat on medium he'd get the lid on while I took the cutting boards and knives to the sink for a rinse and wipe down. I'd dry one and bring it back over for grating the cheese. We had lovely blocks of Romano, first from Costco and later from online shops Zee found with even more cheese selections available.

Our favorite pasta shape was the Rotini, but it was fun to have Butterflies or the other shapes -- sure, they all taste the same, but some held on to the sauce just a bit better. Zee loved having a nice loaf of bread with it too -- it made a great plate sweeper for the leftover gravy. As much as I tried to make bread from scratch, we both agreed the local bakers did a much nicer job. So I'd search them out and find good looking loaves to bring home.

While the pressure cooker did its thing, I was busy filling a spaghetti saucepan from our sink filter dispenser. Slow road, but so much tastier than the chlorinated stuff straight from the tap. Zee was getting the latest tasty loaf from the bread box, and chivvying my kids to wrap up their homework and start setting the table.

Pressure cookers are interesting tools...they sit there quietly for some time, and then pop! the little pressure monitor pops up and the pot starts a quiet tootling. This was a sign that it was time for action stations.

Nik and Nat were pulling out pasta bowls, napkins, cutlery, and glasses.

Zee would turn the heat off on the pressure cooker, and put the heat on under the spaghetti water. By the time the pressure cooker had cooled, the water would be boiling. I'd add the pasta, a pinch of salt, and a glug of olive oil to that pot while Zee opened up the Marinara and examine his gravy. He'd give it a stir, and usually return the heat to medium so it could simmer while the pasta cooked. He'd also turn around to get the pasta serving bowl out of the cupboard. Those pivots were interesting -- he'd reach behind himself with his right hand, and once it caught, he'd be turning and bringing his left arm over to rest his left hand on the counter while his right would reach up, open the cupboard, and take down the bowl. It was a lovely, large, light bowl -- large enough for a family's supper, but light enough for Zee to maneuver it from one counter to another when it was empty.

Once it was all cooked, Zee would start heading to the dining table. My kids would be sitting already, Nat kicking her heels at her seat, Nik fiddling with his cutlery. I'd be lifting the pasta strainer out of the spaghetti pot, then dumping the Rotinis into the pasta bowl. I'd pour the marinara over it, and give it a stir. Then it was a bunch of back-and-forths: pasta bowl to table, grated cheese next, bread and bread knife on their cutting board. Whew!

As Zee headed to the table, he'd chat with my kids. It was a year or so before he shared that child's rhyme with us about gravy-and-bread on Mondays, pasta-and-gravy on Tuesdays, ... on down to just gravy on Sundays. We all laughed at the silliness of it, and could recite it back to him by the time he reached his seat. It was a catchy tune.

Funny what sticks -- I remember very well how to make that lightspeed fresh marinara sauce, but the exact words of the gravy tune -- I've lost them.

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