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.
oh my god. mouth seriously watering.
Often cooks are reluctant to poach eggs for a large group of people. You can do them a day in advance and store them on a baking sheet with a tea cloth underneath to absorb the moisture. Poach the eggs and then submerge in a bowl of cold ice water to stop the cooking. Cover with cling film and put in the refrigerator. Before serving, simply drop gently in simmering water for about 30 seconds. I had to do a thousand once.
one of the best posts yet. loved this. definitely trying the recipe too.
Ah, I miss you. Let’s drink something delicious together if you ever find yourself with a quiet evening in Portland. I tried the steak frites at Petite Jacqueline and have been meaning to thank you! Holy hell it was perfection.
I love, love, love your writing and I definitely love your recipe writing style. It’s great hearing about other people’s kitchens and kitchen stories.
Lovely scenes. I was there with you. And now I know how to poach an egg!
Kate, doesn’t buckwheat flour have gluten? My boyfriend & I have been trying to be mostly gluten free for a few months, but I do love buckwheat.
Buckwheat flour has no gluten, in spite of its scary name. It’s related to rhubarb!
There’s little better than a well poached egg. If you ever figure out what to drink with red wine, let me know.
Never poached eggs before either. It always scares me , mostly the dropping into the water part. I guess there is nothing to lose, except a couple of eggs.
I am looking forward to the book and enjoy your time among the chefs! What an adventure!
Wow, this makes me completely intrigued for that memoir! She’s such a presence here in Boston…her restaurants are so genius and spot-on that I’m often intimidated by her, or the idea of her. But she sounds like such a great host! And I love a hangover story. I hope the book’s end pages have a map of all the restaurants that have meant something to her. : )
I just printed this recipe so that Nathaniel and I can make this for our family tomorrow. He wants to perfect poached eggs and this sounds intriguing! Looking forward to your book in just a few days!
Nicely done, Always enjoy your writing.
I fear for your liver. And onions.
How do you make fried farina? I’m reading your book – Blue Plate Special. Thanks.
Enjoying your new book, Blue Plate Special, so much!
Lovely writing and an inspiring meal. It makes me wish I had potatoes on hand…
I just heard your interview today on NPR re: your new book: “Blue Plate Special” – and, have been perusing your blog ever since. What an inspiration to a starving would-be writer!