He usually calls around 5 p.m. as he’s driving home from work on the H-1 freeway on O‘ahu. He will tell me of vanity plates he sees on his commute; usually a clever saying in pidgin we have to sound out together to decipher. And then at some point in our conversation, my brother asks the same question: “What are you making for dinner tonight?” And I always give the same answer: “No idea.”
At this time of day, I am usually in the kitchen with one baby on my hip, stepping over the two other ones on the floor. There is sweat forming between the phone and my cheek, and cheerios stuck to the bottom of my feet. My brother Charlie, an island away, is driving home in his air-conditioned SUV, his crisp suit wilted and wrinkled from selling himself all day. The 5 ‘o clock hour is when I am tired and want to simplify, and it is when Charlie is off work and wants to expand, create (and selfishly plan his own dinner for the night).
I tell him what I’ve got: chicken and noodles.
“Do you have a good white wine?” He asks. I answer, “Yes.”
“Capers?” Yes, surprisingly. “Shallots?” No. “Charlie, you know I don’t buy that stuff. I have onions.” Charlie sighs loudly into the phone.
“All right, get a pen, write this down,” he commands. “Okay,” I reply earnestly, reaching inside the fridge for a Corona grabbing a baby teething ring instead. “Okay, dust the chicken in flour — Come on lady, try a blinker — Sear it in the pan on both sides,” he yells into the phone. At this point Charlie has entered into his chef mode: He is talking to me, other drivers and himself all at once, with spices and herbs swirling around in his head. He’s entering the improvisational dramatic monologue of creating a recipe.
I wait, putting down one baby, picking up another.
“Okay, the sauce, always the most important part, sis, remember that.” He begins to spit out the sauce ingredients with no measurements. One kitchen technique my brother and I do have in common is we don’t do exact measurements. We both pour what we estimate to be the right amount of wine or stock — he out of wisdom and experience of working in the restaurant business — me out of laziness and not wanting to wash multiple measuring cups and spoons.
Charlie continues: “O.K., wine, chicken stock, caper juice, lemon juice, vindaloo.”
Wait. “Vinda-who?” I ask, wondering if we are back to sounding out a license plate on the road.
“It’s an Indian spice I think will go good in this, just a hint, not a lot.”
Well, obviously I don’t have this, but I do have the crushed red bell pepper and fresh basil to top the dish with at the end, of which I am quite proud.
This is how I get dinner (and pretty good ones) on the table a lot of nights. Tonight I will make a decent chicken and pasta dish, but Charlie will go home and make something else entirely — an art piece served up effortlessly, intuitively adding another spice or two at the last minute. Although he’s a successful salesman, he should have been a chef. He has the ill-temper, quickness and creativity suited for the kitchen, and he creates something magical with food. “I gotta go,” he says. “Don’t overcook the chicken like you always do.” “Yeah, yeah,” I say and hang up the phone — now inspired to make dinner.
• Lois Ann Ell is a freelance writer and mother of three living on Kaua‘i.
Charlie’s Pasta Piccatta
Serves 2 adults and 3 small children
12 oz. pasta (any kind)
4 chicken breasts
Flour for dusting
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup shallots (or onions)
Juice of one lemon
Sprinkle of vindaloo (optional)
2 tablespoons capers with juice
Fresh basil sprigs
Crushed red pepper
Melt butter in a large saucepan heated to medium. Dust both sides of chicken breasts with flour, add chicken to saucepan. Sear each side. Take chicken out of pan, set aside. Add wine, stock, shallots, lemon juice and vindaloo and capers. Bring to a boil. Add chicken back to pan, reduce heat to low and simmer for 5-7 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in the middle.
While sauce is cooking, boil pasta, drain and put back in pot. Assemble pasta on a plate. Put chicken breast on top, and pour sauce on top of chicken. Sprinkle with basil and red pepper. Serves 4 people.