Daisy (featuring Seared Halibut with a Hazelnut Romesco)
Francis and I were moving into an apartment with such a thick smog of dust motes that you couldn’t differentiate the ceiling from the walls or floors. It was the sort of impossible, unexplainable sphere of filth that only exists in dreams. There was a man with a cream-colored cowboy hat and a grey horseshoe mustache showing us around the Texas apartment that we’d just signed a lease on. I couldn’t remember why or when we’d decided to move to Magatown, USA, but here we were. My forehead hurt from the expression of confusion I had molded permanently onto my face. And then on the floor was my dog Dexter, who in the dream had died years ago just as he did in the real world.
This Dexter was a blonde golden retriever though, not my goofy german shepherd corgi lab mix, and then suddenly he was alive but sick and I was trying everything I could to cure him. He was suffering endlessly. I was powerless.
I woke up frozen, too scared to move. My arms could think for themselves and believed that if they bent at the elbows the dream would be true. I could hear my heart beating through my veins: thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. And then I shuddered and actually woke up. I felt hollowed and echoey. Undone, as though there was some unresolved Dexter dog mom infraction for which I should be sentenced to life in a crappy Texas apartment.
What was going on? I thought as I panted in bed watching the dawn crack the navy shell of night. That morning, I was supposed to be having nightmares about my big gig later that day.
The party was the annual Independence Day celebration that my team and I have catered for the past 4 years. Donned in bikinis and trunks, guests blissfully bob up and down at the all-day pool party while my staff leans over the chlorinated water to offer them tasty appetizers. Eventually, everyone towels off and indulges in a glorious buffet of fresh fish and succulent meat; bright veggies and copious salads. It’s a big deal for me and my team.
That’s what I was supposed to be nightmaring about. Not this traumatic dog stuff.
I prepped all morning, trying to set my focus on perfecting the tastes of the day, but the pain of the dream clung to my shoulders like a wooly pashmina. I needed to shake this off before I got to my gig.
My job has an aspect that many people don’t think about. I am introduced to most of my clients in the hours before they have a big party. Do you know what people are like before they host a huge shindig in their home? They’re a fucking mess. They’re insecure and terrified and bossy and desperate and inconsistent. I know– I’m that way too when I throw a party.
They answer the door with the personality they’ve invented: the representative of their internal party thrower, often stern and stiff. The bad cop. But then there’s a shift, a relaxation– because I’m there on time, everything I need in tow, with a big, silly grin on my face, and shoulders wide enough to hold the burden of all of their party terror. I can hold it too. I have done so for years. I’m really good at stepping into a space and filling it with confident, organized, well-planned actions. I change the mood of a kitchen as soon as I walk into it.
But it’s exhausting. And sometimes I forget the weight of this talent (because it’s also true that I cook all the food, organize the equipment, hire the staff, plate the meals, and clean it all up). I forget that it’s hard because it brings me so much pleasure.
When I have personal distractions, my confidence in my strength wavers.
I pulled my Red Honda full of food into their driveway. I popped open the trunk and began to unload. I took four steps toward the side door of my client’s house when it hit me: Daisy.
Our clients had a gray beagle hound mix named Daisy who was on her last legs the year before. Honestly, and I apologize because I know it’s not fun to read, I didn’t think Daisy was going to make it through that party. She was struggling to walk, eat, breathe, or do anything. We were all terrified because Daisy was such a great dog and an integral part of this wonderful family.
I walk an interesting line with my clients. I am trusted with taking care of them on some of the biggest days of their lives and yet, I don’t know them at all. I’m not suggesting that I’m unsatisfied with the distribution of emotional weight in these relationships, but there are some moments when I am drawn in closer than I expect to be. Seeing Daisy suffer last year instigated a train of thought about life that I wasn’t prepared to have at a catering gig. Everyone on my staff experienced those feelings because we’d developed a relationship with Daisy over the years and to see her in pain was torturous. We had all talked about Daisy during the year since the party, wondering what had happened and assuming the worst.
I knocked on my client’s side door and then pushed it open as I always do. And there, in the middle of the laundry room was Daisy! Deaf and old, but grinning ear to ear, tail wagging so vigorously that she almost fell over.
“OH MY GOD! Daisy! Daisy!” I sang out, completely forgetting my cool caterer disposition.
My clients rounded the corner from the kitchen.
“Alison! Welcome back!!!” And we hugged because that’s what it’s like with some clients. We’re really close… one day a year.
“You see Daisy’s still with us!” they pointed to her triumphantly.
I stumbled through my response, “Um uh, I know.. I can’t belie…” because I was suddenly a little weepy and felt self-consciously unprofessional. I gulped down some air and balled my fists tightly to refocus my emotions.
“I’ll be back in a sec! Got lots to unload.”
“Sounds good!” My clients walked off to get ready for party time, confident that I had what I needed. I did too, I could hold the weight of this party easily. Now I understood why I’d had that dream. It was Daisy all along.
We had a wonderful party, of course. Daisy wandered into the kitchen frequently, sniffing around near my shoes for little scraps of fallen goodies. Each woman on my staff took a turn gently shooing Daisy out of the chaotic kitchen, smiling gratefully at the little hound.
Hours later I was driving North on the Freeway toward home, tired beyond comprehension, but so grateful and fulfilled that it didn’t feel burdensome. I looked into the sky. What is that? Have I lost my mind? Is that a dog bone in the sky?
Maybe Dexter molded that cloud formation for Daisy. Or maybe for me. It’s not sure I believe in long-departed dogs sculpting clouds from heaven, but it sure did make me smile.
Here’s one of the many things that I cooked for that party. Halibut is gorgeous right now, so it’s perfectly seasonal.
Seared Halibut with Hazelnut Romesco Sauce
Hazelnut Romesco Sauce
- ½ cup hazelnuts
- 2 red bell peppers
- 1 large tomato, cut in half with as much juice squeezed out as you can
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Turn the oven on to 425 degrees. Roast the hazelnuts on a sheet pan for 10 minutes and, on a separate pan, roast the tomato for 10 minutes. Peel the pepper by putting them right on the gas flame of your stovetop and wait until they become blackened. Peel the burned skin off, slice the peppers in half to de-seed and de-core, and place them into the bowl of a food processor (but don’t blend yet).
- When the nuts and tomato have cooled, put them in the food processor too, along with the garlic, sherry vinegar, olive oil, paprika, cayenne, and salt. Blend well.
- 4 6-ounce halibut fillets
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Season the fish with salt and pepper generously. Using an oven-safe pan, heat the oil until very hot. Take a paper towel and blot the moisture that the fish has released since being salted. You’ll get a much better sear if the fish isn’t wet.
- Place the fish in the pan and sear for 2 minutes a side.
- Spoon a dollop of romesco onto each fillet and then place the pan into the 425-degree oven for 8 minutes. Serve with extra romesco.