Desperado (featuring Manchego Cheese Thumbprint Cookies with Bacon Jam)
Diced and peeled butternut squash sprinkled with a little Za’atar was roasting in the oven and on the back burner, vegetable stock simmered away. I added diced sweet potatoes to the broth and a squeeze of lemon juice. The mushroom and gruyere parcels were lined up in rows on foil pans and I slid them into the freezer. I poured the sweet tomato chutney for the cauliflower that would be fried on-site that night into a pint container and then wrote “sweet tom chut” on a piece of blue tape which I affixed to the plastic pint top. I tonged the crispy bacon slices out onto a paper towel-lined plate next to the frying pan.
Decembers are always busy for me and, though the size of the parties shrank this year, I was still happily booked solid all month long.
I turned the heat off under the frying pan, of that much I’m certain. Or pretty certain anyway. Then I reached over to the nest of stainless steel bowls and nabbed the smallest one on top. Tipping the soup spoon in my right hand on a slight angle toward the back of the pan I began skimming the bacon grease into the little bowl. One spoonful, two, three, four, EXPLOSION!
I don’t know what changed. It’s not like I suddenly dipped the spoon into a bowl of cold water and then back into the hot bacon grease. Did the spoon angle deviate? Was the heat still on underneath the pan? I honestly don’t know anything except that the grease leaped out of the pan onto my right cheek and nose. I was working alone in the kitchen and stepped out for a few moments to curse at the grease, the spoon, and myself. I rinsed my face, shook my head at my reflection, and went back to work.
Listen, my job is dangerous. I get burned and cut all the time. This was on my face which I didn’t love, but I could tell the burn wasn’t that bad. I was prepping for a dinner party for 11 people that evening as well as a drop-off for 35 the following day. It was the day before the day before Christmas. There wasn’t time to stop and indulge in some self-pity so I relit the flame, tossed a tablespoon of butter into the remaining bacon grease, added a half cup of chopped shallots and 2 cloves of garlic, and continued my prep.
That night at the party I was catering I was happy to be masked. The right side of my face had swollen up a bit. I thought it was better to leave the makeup off that half so I had a sort of before/ after or Jekyll/ Hyde look going on. My client did a small double-take at the difference between my eyes – the left with black eyeliner swooping out to emphasize a cat eye, dark burgundy eyeshadow, and mascara; the right– pink, swollen, and naked.
“Did you see a doctor?” Wendy, my friend and server for the event asked as we filled bowls with deconstructed butternut squash and sage soup.
“I know it looks bad, but the burn isn’t in my eye. I think this is just my overreactive skin.” I was remembering an allergic reaction to a new eye cream I experienced 3 years before where my whole face swelled shut.
Wendy looked unconvinced but turned toward the client’s table with multiple soup bowls balanced up her forearms.
By the time the dill and mustard crusted salmon, rosemary fingerling potatoes, and brussels sprouts with pancetta and balsamic were plated I’d completely forgotten about my wounds. This is the money shot for me, my happiest moment. To see the balance of colors, a multitude of flavors arranged carefully on the client’s fancy china, any dribbles or splatters of sauce wiped off the plate’s rims, to watch them leave the kitchen in an orderly fashion, well that’s it for me. That’s my whole life right there. And then the oohs and aahs from the dining room. I’m never happier. Burn shmurn.
When I woke up that next (Christmas eve) morning, the right side of my face had grown to double its size, my right eye was swollen almost shut.
The menu for my delivery that afternoon was simple:
Smoked Salmon Mousse on Corn Blinis
Endive Spears with Blue Cheese, Balsamic Reduction, and Candied Pecans
Lemon Risotto Arancini with Garlic Aioli Dipping Sauce
Glazed Sesame and Ginger Chicken Meatballs
Thinly Sliced Flat Iron Steak on Homemade Rosemary Brioche Buns with Horseradish Cream and Microgreens
Mini Shrimp Po’Boys with Remoulade Slaw
Savory Rosemary and Parmesan Thumbprint Cookies with Bacon Jam
There was too much to get done before my 4:00 departure time to think about my face, though I will admit to wondering midday, as I balled the ginger chicken onto parchment-lined sheet pans if I would be permanently scarred because I hadn’t sought medical help sooner. Were these balls or those endive spears or those little po’boys really worth it? I know it’s twisted, but the answer is yes. My dedication to this little company I’ve created is the only way that I can prove to myself that I’m worthwhile. I’m responsible. I’m trustworthy. I’m sober. I built this myself and not showing up isn’t an option anymore.
It’s also important to say here that I knew deep down inside this wasn’t a big burn. I promise if it had been as bad as it looked, I would have immediately gone to the doctor.
Francis had to drive me and the food to my Christmas eve delivery because my right eye was swollen shut.
The following morning we went to the ER. Christmas morning, that is. The ER doc landed on impetigo as the diagnosis and gave me a sticky ointment and an antibiotic. I was a bit dubious as impetigo is a very contagious infection that tends to strike kids between the ages of 2 and 5, but I felt kind of blissful to be in medical care and sang “Impetigo” to the tune of “Desperado” loudly from my ER gurney.
You are some kind of infection
I’d been out frying bacon
for so long now…”
I crack myself up. Just myself though.
Crusty, pink, and juicy, much like a perfectly cooked prime rib, is how I’d describe the right side of my face after treatment. A little less swollen, but no better. The burn sites could no longer be found and my face was just a big over-reactive mess. Now that the holiday had passed I could go to my regular doc, who said I did not have impetigo. I’d had an allergic reaction to the burn. That’s right my friends, I’m allergic to trauma.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for 2021.
A little Benadryl and Prednisone and I’m myself again.
Please take care of yourself. It’s been madness out there in the world and our little bodies metastasize that trauma in mysterious ways. Here’s to a safe and joyous New Year! My gift to you is a recipe for cheesy thumbprint cookies with bacon jam.
Love you all!
Manchego Cheese Thumbprint Cookies with Bacon Jam
Makes 3 dozen cookies
First, make the bacon jam (carefully).
- 6 ounces bacon, chopped into ½ inch squares
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 shallot, (approximately ½ cup) chopped fine
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- ¾ teaspoon Aleppo chili powder (optional but recommended)
- 2 tablespoons water
- In a skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until it’s crispy. Strain cooked bacon onto a paper towel-lined plate, reserving one tablespoon of bacon fat.
- Heat the bacon fat with the unsalted butter over a medium flame in the same pan. Stir in the shallots and garlic and saute for 20 seconds. Add the salt and saute for another 1-2 minutes to gently cook the shallots. Add the brown sugar and maple syrup and let cook for 30 seconds. Add the sherry vinegar, the chili powder, the water, and stir. Add the bacon into the mixture, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes or until the mixture looks gently gelatinized, though it will be more bacony than jammy.
- 1 ½ sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 2 cups Manchego cheese, grated
- 1 tablespoon rosemary chopped fine
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, cut the butter with the sugar, salt, and egg by pulsing about 7 times. Add the flours and process for about 10 pulses and then the cheese and the rosemary. Process for another 30 seconds until the dough comes together in a ball.
- Using a tablespoon measure (or a #60 cookie scoop), scoop out balls of batter onto a parchment-lined sheet pan. Flatten the balls out and then press a divot into the center of the cookies using your thumb or forefinger. Place about a half teaspoon of bacon jam into the divots and then bake for 15 minutes.