I promise you that this story will not make you cry. Well, maybe a happy tear if you're an emotional sort.
After finishing editing it, punctuated with a satisfying Chardy pour, tonight I set about reading some old stories with that Chardy in hand, as I do, and came across so much that made my eyes dribble anew, and caused my mind to wander and remember even more. So although I promised no crying, I find myself wiping away some tears while laying down these polishing paragraphs. I'm a sook, but proud of it.
They are almost all happy tears though, of gratitude for having had my beautiful Princess in my life, in Seb's life, and in Al's life, and for for everything that she did, and could do seemingly effortlessly.
For the last couple of months, Monday night has been risotto night at our joint. I have actually got quite good at cooking it in that short space of time, starting out with zero knowledge, with the aim being to re-create a family favourite.
Conventionally, thanks to a Greek nerd named Archimedes, when striking gold one cries Eureka! A literal translation: "I've found it". Archimedes was discovering nothing to do with gold at the time, rather it was the science of accurately measuring how big odd shaped objects were. He was apparently so overcome by his scientific discovery and an overwhelming desire to share it, that he jumped up out of his bath tub and ran through the streets naked shouting like a crazy person.
I suppose the gold association came a few years later, when he cleverly sussed out for another bloke that a dishonest jeweller had sneakily switched out some gold by mixing the rest with silver in a crown. Archimedes worked it out without doing anything to the precious crown (but given the jeweller's handiwork, I suppose it was a little less precious after the jig was up). This science all happened well before the little baby Jesus got nailed to bits of a tree. Smart bloke.
Jude's chicken, pumpkin and spinach risotto was pure gold, so is eureka! what one should yell upon striking a near perfect recreation of Jude risotto?
I cried, while dancing around the kitchen like a crazy person: "Fuck me! For fuck's sake! After God knows how many fucking attempts it is finally fucking happening!"
I was with you, Archimedes. Except I wasn't doing The Naked Chef.
Yes, it's a bit of a mouth full compared to minimalist mining-speak, but I'm running with it. "Eureka!" isn't nearly descriptive enough for such a momentous event. When you strike your perfect risotto, feel free to use my expletives instead, too. I know I will, every time I haphazard upon a mother lode of such Princess goodness in future.
I'm tipping this is how it happened: The Bold and The Beautiful...
The key was more distraction at the stove, ignoring potential issues, and directing more focus to the telly. I watched an episode of "B and The B" to celebrate. Brooke was still being judgemental, Katie gushed to Bill about having a kid and a heart transplant, then predictably collapsed, Wyatt proposed to Sally. Not much had changed since I half-watched Jude's last episode with her over a year ago, except I'm sure young Wyatt was bonking someone else back then. Was it dad's squeeze Katie? Ewww. Age-gap! Then again, I do like an older woman, so go you, Wyatt.
"Why do I watch this vacuous shit?"
It also happened in part because I found the base recipe shoved up in a high cupboard in the kitchen. I had a trepidatious "Fuck me ... is this...? OMG it is!" moment.
My skin went cold. I could taste the success. It was unbelievably hidden in plain sight, being slipped into the very first page of this plastic-pocket-book of Jude treasure, shoved into that high cupboard because she rarely ever looked at it, cooking mostly from memory.
Surely completing this quest, my odyssey of risotto recreation could not be so simple?
I had never seen Jude follow a recipe cooking her risotto, so what was I holding? Fools gold?
I straight away got reading. It was simple, as I had expected. Onion, garlic, chicken, arborio, pumpkin, spinach, oil, Parmesan, a neat litre of stock, and job's done.
But hmmm... chopping up pumpkin into 2cm cubes? Doesn't sound like our Jude. More like buy a Coles packet of pre-chopped 1.25cm cubes. Way less work. And just one tablespoon of olive oil? Yeah, nah. Doesn't sound like Jude, either. I personally witnessed the bottle being imperfectly imperially upended to taste and feel with no tablespoons involved. 150g of baby spinach leaves? Nah, big handful. The Parmesan a measured quarter cup? Nope. Haphazardly shake some out of the packet to look right, whatever that looked like.
I was in trouble, all over again.
Precision in the kitchen was never her thing. Cooking with love in the kitchen prevailed, and love has an annoying way of being highly imprecise, whilst being fucking wonderful.
The brilliant clue offered up by this recipe, absorbed, embraced and extended ages ago by Princess Imperfect Perfection however, was in the approach. There was no risotto-perfect non-stick fry-pan involved. There was no oven involved. There was no gradual ladling of near-boiling stock, either.
It was a one pot wonder, done in a large saucepan. Brown the chicken and set aside (annoyingly in another dish that will want washing), soften the onion, add the pumpkin, garlic and rice, coating it all for a cooked minute in residual oily goodness, then squeeze the whole bloody litre of cold stock in one go into the pot, throw a lid on, bring the lot to boil and back to a simmer, then go watch Bold and The Beautiful and mostly ignore the bastard.
That would have agreed with Jude. One pot, so no messy heating stock in another pot and making more dishes to clean. No flapping about the cook-top stirring, instead pour a Chardy and press 'play' for some quality Brooke and Ridge goodness while dinner cooks itself, maybe stirring half way in an ad-break.
I had all the raw materials to work with, and a rough idea of the right approach, but just like the NASA blokes trying to put Neil on the moon (yeah, easy, right?), my concept was now sound, and I only had to work out the details.
I don't know whether you've ever seen the movie Apollo 13? Bad shit happened all throughout that flight via the moon, ultimately resulting in their commander needing to set their spacecraft's final trajectory back towards Earth without computers. Instead, he and his crew used nothing more than visual guides out the window to set trajectory while they burned engines manually for a wristwatch measured period. They could either pull off that risky and imprecise one-shot navigational trick, or they were dead.
The improvisation necessary in that ill-fated flight felt similar to the approach needed to guide Jude's one-pot risotto to the plate. A recipe is supposed to be a plan to follow to achieve cooking success, but in practice there was so much that fucked up, and nearly fucked up, and felt like it should have fucked up, yet didn't. I was with you, commander Jim Lovell. It was seat of the pants stuff. Recipe for success my arse.
I knew distraction should have been the key, yet I couldn't commit to it, given all the risotto advice I've received lately. Instead I watched the pot intently, hovering, agitating rice every minute or two, which was increasingly disintegrating the pumpkin.
Devastatingly, it ended in a complete fuck-up. Thankfully no one died.
It was a gluggy mushed-up mess, with pumpkin puree everywhere and green chunks. Edible, but not nice. The cat gave a glowing review of the chicken, however, given that element was cooked perfectly. Well, it was a good review once the mush was licked off with a dirty look.
This shouldn't have been rocket science. I had the bloody recipe. I can bloody cook. This risotto business could well be trickier than rocket science, I thought.
I ignored the failure, deciding it must have been my thirteenth risotto cooking attempt to date, and resolved to have yet another go.
I was learning every time. I was thinking every time: what would Jude have done? Last time there was clearly too much attention, and not "stirring occasionally", plus I always saw her microwave the pumpkin later, and not chuck it in the pot along with the rice.
So next attempt a week later I added a bit of distraction by cooking whilst migrating some of the home virtual machines to their brand new clustered server home to make the blog and home automation more reliable. This turned out to be a pretty good nerd distraction, just like The Bold and The Beautiful would have been for Jude.
I also moved cooking activity away from the gas cook-top inside and out to the electric job in the Hutch, which was where Jude had almost exclusively conducted proceedings. Plus the right microwave was involved for pumpkin of course.
Surely this time.
"It's your closest one."
It was a vastly improved attempt.
Al mused that maybe the pumpkin hadn't been cooked long enough with the risotto.
It was a carefully considered criticism. Plus he offered that the rice wasn't as fully cooked as Jude did it.
We workshopped an additional likely flavour misdemeanour over the dinner table: More cheese, and not grated. Next time use the shaved Millel stuff from Gippsland that comes in a purple bag from Coles, and not the fancy Parmigiano Reggiano imported from Italy that I had been using. A bag of Millel has been ever present in our fridge for as long as I can remember, so it made perfect sense for that stuff to be the right stuff.
More cheese, and give a domestic producer a chop out by buying Australian: It's what Princess would have done.
I couldn't wait for risotto night the next week.
One week passing, and surely this time. Surely.
"It's your closest yet. It's a great risotto, don't get me wrong, but it's not the same as mum's. It's not the one. Maybe too salty?"
Okay. Less Parmesan, fuck it. Fuck it!
After months of trying, it felt like this delight of hers was made of unobtanium, not gold.
In chatting about where I'd gone wrong on this attempt around the table with the boys, I offered downheartedly that maybe I was chasing a romanticism of Jude's perfect risotto. Was it even attainable? I had produced a fucking good risotto that night so I was not doubting my cooking ability, but rather my ability to translate my mind's eye and taste buds onto the plate. Seb answered that one quickly, dusting me off and tossing me back into the ring: "Nope. I've got mum's risotto burned into my brain. And I'd be remembering her best one. You're close." Thanks, bloke.
So into the known unknown I went again.
The very next day.
I couldn't wait another week.
Somewhat akin to the code name for the last push ending The War to End All Wars, I declared it R-Day. Risotto Day.
It wasn't intended for dinner. If it was any good, then it would be tubbed up for university/gym lunches. If it was shit, it was in the bin. It felt like a day of reckoning as I unpacked shopping bags full of the right stuff in bulk in the middle of the day, onions and pumpkin going everywhere, feeling a tonne of self-heaped pressure and trepidation.
The cat watched intently.
Relax. Be the risotto. Feel Jude beneath your wings, and cook, motherfucker, cook. You got this. There will be no MasterChef Death Dish on this day. You will prevail.
I had been humbled earlier this week when beautiful Kim whipped up a risotto for me on the weekend for herself, myself and one of her beautiful sons, Cam, using no measure, a tonne of local knowledge, and a tray of oven roasted pumpkin. I had been schooled. She owned it, and imprecisely cooked it with the requisite love. She was gutsy, approaching it assertively, doing it by feel, nibbling it occasionally, waving a loaded glass of wine around and chit-chatting to distraction with me. As a "ta da!", she showed me "la onda", the wave of risotto happiness signalling that it was of perfect consistency for the plate. Witnessing her fair hand showing that risotto that she owned its arse gave me strength for my risotto reckoning. It was not going to beat me.
Jude be with me. Kim, please be with me, my brain screamed.
I cooked, and I cooked, expertly ignoring the bastard at just the right time just like Jude would have done, yet Kim didn't do, given the vastly different cooking method. I realised with the help of a timer and rough guidance by the recipe, that Jude's lot needed to be left bubbling away to itself in its lidded pot mostly undisturbed for precisely twenty two minutes, exactly the duration of an episode of "The B and the B" with the frequent ads skipped. Perfect.
There was a breathless moment after each batch was complete. The love I had tossed in each pot, whether measured with Jude or Kim-like imprecision was there, measured equally regardless the differing method employed by those two beauties.
But had I?
Had I found it?
On tasting, imagine me dancing around the Hutch kitchen like a crazy person cussing my eureka! so loud the neighbours blushed, with Lulu the cat staring intently from inside, her face pressed against the window probably wondering how long it was going to be until she got her next failed treat.
There will be no more failures for you, cat, only the good stuff. I am nailing it from here on in, yet will still strive each time to strike unobtanium.
I love you Jude. I love you Kim. I've found the recipe, the technique, the attitude, and the love ingredient that I was missing to hold on to this treasure forever.
It's still not "the one". That might never happen. It was Jude's alone after all. But with beautiful help I'm unbelievably so close, and that makes my heart sing with joy.