One night this past winter, I was down in Boston with the generous, hilarious, down-to-earth master chef Barbara Lynch. I’m writing Barbara’s memoir with her, so I’ve been spending a lot of time in her world this year, getting to know her friends and family, her restaurants, her old hangouts in Southie.
After a dinner party at her old Southie pal Norton’s townhouse, during which Barbara made one pizza after another in his brick oven (the one with goat cheese and lemon-vinaigrette arugula salad was by far the best pizza, gluten-free or otherwise, I’ve ever had; it was her first stab at gluten-free crust), we all packed off to the Quencher, one of Southie’s oldest and most beloved establishments. Barbara thought it would be educational for me, plus everyone there has known her forever, so I could dig for material.
The Quencher is a dark, crowded, cozy dive bar. I sat with Barbara’s first cousin Nancy, a stalwart regular with a handbag full of knitting and birdwatching binoculars. Her husband had already gone home. She was drinking beer.
I’d been drinking red wine all night.
“What am I going to drink that goes with red wine?” I wondered aloud to Barbara, who handed me a vodka and soda, which doesn’t at all, but I was so happy, I forgot about not mixing.
After three of these, I was properly shitfaced, but I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to stay there all night, bantering with Nancy, who was openly skeptical of me but hilarious and frank (“How has Southie changed since the seventies?” I asked her earnestly, trying to be an A-student little memoir-writer; she blinked at me for a full beat then mused aloud, “Why the hell did Barbara hire you?” at which point I fell in love with her) but closing time came, as it always does, and Kristen Kish, a stellar gorgeous ninja of a person who recently won “Top Chef” and is now chef de cuisine at Menton, Barbara’s fine-dining restaurant, drove us back to Barbara’s pied-a-terre in Fort Point.
Barbara and I stayed up even later with a bottle of red wine, talking and talking. I staggered upstairs and fell asleep sometime in the early morning and did not move until early the next afternoon. I staggered down at 1:00 to find Barbara cooking, of course.
“There you are,” she said, peering at me anxiously. “I just told Kristen that I think I might have killed the writer.”
She gave me coffee and sparkling water, which I drank while she finished making whatever she was making. It turned out to be potato pancakes – light, crisp, fluffy, savory – with kale and poached eggs.
“How do you poach an egg?” I asked, licking my plate with my forefinger, my hangover vanquished. I had never poached an egg before, I realized.
The trick, she said, was to crack an egg first into a teacup and pour it all at once into lightly boiling water into which you’ve put some vinegar, a good jot. Do them one at a time and scoop them out after a few minutes with a slotted spoon. And she showed me.
Since I started hanging out with Barbara last fall, I’ve felt myself stepping up my cooking game. I’ve never spent time with any world-class chefs before, if only because I’ve never had the opportunity. Barbara cooks like a natural. She never went to cooking school. She cooked for and with Todd English for many years, but by the time he hired her, she was already formed: She’s self-taught and self-invented, but she cooks as if she had been taught by a Tuscan nonna. Somehow, she’s absorbed the vernacular and infused it with her own ideas. I think she’s a genius.
Anyway, I learned to poach an egg from Barbara Lynch, and thanks to her, I feel that I am a world-class egg-poacher. Since that breakfast, I’ve been poaching eggs like mad, and I have never once fucked one up: my poached eggs are always perfect, soft and coalescent, with melting, buttery yolks.
Today, Brendan got up at 6 and went off to the café on Congress to work. I woke up hungry at 8:30. I drank coffee and read the New York Times online. At 10:00, I washed 5 organic Yukon Golds and put them in a pot to boil. By the time Brendan got home with a bottle of cold sparkling rosé, they were perfectly cooked.
“How did you know when to come home?” I asked.
“How long have we been together?” he answered. “Anyway, how did you know when to put the potatoes on?”
“How long have we been together?”
Inspired by my long-ago breakfast at Barbara’s, I mashed the hot, soft potatoes in a metal bowl, skins on, and put the bowl into the freezer to chill. Then I sautéed 4 crushed, chopped garlic cloves and a large minced shallot in olive oil. When it was all brown and just starting to caramelize, I added it to the cool potatoes and mixed it all up and put it all back into the freezer.
Then I sautéed a pound of baby spinach (that’s what we had instead of kale) with kosher salt in some chicken broth, covered, stirring every so often. When the spinach was dark green, I dumped it into a metal colander over a wide shallow glass bowl and poked at it with a wooden spoon to squeeze out all the moisture.
Meanwhile, I put a saucepan of water on for poached eggs. I added a fat jot of white wine vinegar plus a generous pinch of salt for good luck, as I always do. When it boiled, I turned it down to a simmer and poached the eggs one by one, cracking them first into a teacup. They all came out perfectly….
To the mashed potatoes, I added 2 beaten eggs, a dash of half-and-half, 1/3 cup of fine buckwheat flour, kosher salt, and fresh-ground black pepper. Then I heated a slick of peanut oil in the large cast-iron skillet. When a bit of potato sizzled, I turned down the heat and spooned 4 big glops of potato pancake mix into the pan and flattened them with the spatula and left them to cook while I poached the eggs, one by one.
Inspired by Barbara’s breakfast, I served a Florentine: onto a potato pancake went a big heap of spinach, then a poached egg, then another pancake on top. Brendan poured glasses of cold sparkling pink wine. We toasted to Southie.