I never could get my beef casserole to taste exactly like my mother-in-law Melanie’s version. My husband Todd declared her dish the tastiest, of course, and said he’d ask her for the recipe. My next two attempts still fell short of the mark.
“You tried your best,” he said with a kind smile. I seethed in silence.
When his sister Jane came to dinner and offered to help in the kitchen, I swallowed my pride. We’d always got on well so I asked her advice.
“I just can’t get it right,” I said.
Jane smiled. “You know what they say about your mum’s cooking.”
I didn’t. My mother had been great at microwaving. “I followed her recipe to the letter.”
“I’m sure. But you should know that she never gives away all her secrets.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well.” She lowered her voice. “The secret ingredient makes the dish. Ground fennel seeds for pork chops. Grated nutmeg in creamed spinach. Use red wine and a splash of balsamic vinegar, and cook that beef casserole slow and long. Try it.” She winked as she carried the ice cream out.
After that I watched TV chefs and studied recipes for inspiration. I experimented with Todd’s family favourites and took careful notes on what he enjoyed most, until the flavours were perfectly balanced for his tastes. And then I invited his family for Sunday lunch.
We feasted on meat of such sweet silkiness it melted in the mouth, underpinned by wine, redcurrants, and fresh rosemary. When Todd had second and third helpings before declaring my lamb casserole the best he’d ever had, I was delighted.
“I’m glad you like it,” I said.
“It was surprisingly good, actually.” Melanie dabbed at her lips delicately with a napkin. She acted unimpressed but her empty plate said it all. “Perhaps I could have the recipe, though I’d want to put my own spin on it. You don’t mind, do you dear?”
Across the table Jane coughed, then took a long drink of her wine. I avoided catching her eye.
“Of course not.” I gave her a genuine smile, went into the kitchen, and danced unseen while angel voices sang of my triumph.
I already had a suitable version, prepared earlier. No need to mention the depth of umami imparted by dried shiitake mushrooms and the surprising addition of anchovy fillet. She might figure it out, eventually.
Who said revenge was a dish best served cold?
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