Joy and I have had a rough time, trouble that's ironic given the relative affluence we used to enjoy. Today is Valentine's, the most important holiday we share, and we don't have money for gifts. Everything between us -- the boring, settled-in, civil-unioned-in-Vermont female couple -- is fine except for the moola.
"Red," she said to me yesterday, "when we have money," (something Joy says daily since her dot com job's dot gone and I'm between research grants) "I need a new sketch book." Her talents, if I were to inventory them, are playing Celtic harp, drawing, and assembling the best bubble bath a lover could imagine. Mine are pottery, choosing Joy's concert clothes, and cooking. Hobbies are never free, but I'm considering something within our austerity plan.
I've been reading recipes all morning. It's no hardship we're snowed in at the top of our steep driveway because we can't afford seafood or champagne or truffles. Joy's been working at her corner desk, probably doing another rendition of her resume. I think today calls for music, but she rarely relaxes enough these days to play. She says the harp requires a carefree touch that she can't manufacture.
This recipe, the one I'm adapting, is all about process and presentation rather than elaborate ingredients. The method is en papillote, which refers to baking inside a paper pouch, from the French for "in paper." I know there's one sheet of parchment lying around; I noticed the bright carton not a week ago. The container, I remember, features someone French-looking in a tall white hat. Even the box is a work of art.
What I have on hand to put inside the rolled-edge package is carrots, zucchini, garlic, and frozen perch fillets. What will emerge, I hope, when I slit the cooked paper to release the steam, is haute perch. That and stale bread, toasted, will be festive.
After I've looked and really cannot find the sheet of paper, I decide to risk nasty aluminum foil. I cut myself twice, once on the vicious blade alongside the box and once on the sheet I've managed to tear. Having suffered nicks the depth of paper cuts, I toss the packet into the oven and turn the heat low. Joy hums from the corner, which is particularly annoying, so I decide to ruin the surprise for her. "I'm hurt," I say, sounding so wounded I'm embarrassed.
"I've an idea," she says, not looking up.
"Well, I tried a special dinner, but it won't turn out," I whine. "I'll show you the picture from the cookbook."
"No," she says, "surprise me. I'll fix you a bath."
It's an offer I want to refuse, but my mood is apathetic and my hand stings.
"If you have time," I say.
I soak and sulk, grateful when Joy towels my damp hair. I'm skulking around in my robe, terry collar standing up, and I smell the dinner. Fish, unmistakably, almost done. She returns to the bedroom twirling the parchment box and says, "I like this, Red. Let's save it."
Downstairs, she's transformed her workspace into a wonderful dining nook. Joy's pulled out all our mismatched family heirlooms and has set a lovely table. She'll burn herself if she retrieves the entrée, but she's surely performed a miracle otherwise. There's something tied with a bow at my place, an empty plate at hers. I've forgiven her self-absorption from earlier, but now she's so animated she's grabbing for my gift. "Look," she says, sliding lavender ribbon stamped with hearts off a paper roll.
As she spreads the scroll she's wound, I see myself sketched as someone French, a coquettish sophisticate, tall white hat shadowed and blended in soft strokes. The details she invented are amazing, and the parchment background contributes the perfect texture.