by Amy L. Hull
written for Lookoutwife in the help_haiti challenge based on an idea from Imbri6
thanks to Ayiana2 and LadyChi for betas
Casey heard a faint pounding in the courtyard.
He looked up from the Military Channel All Weapons All Day Marathon. Surveillance was not a priority with Walker and Bartowski on some pitiful training assignment in and around Death Valley for the weekend. Walker had packed an entire bag of sun block, but Casey was sure she and the moron would both come back burnt to a crisp. He grunted out a short laugh. At least he didn't have to watch the screw-ups or listen to the whining.
The pounding sounded again, closer this time. He moved to stand, but the man on the screen fired a hand-held device, and a makeshift shack a mile away exploded into rubble. He chuckled. "I want one."
The pounding was at his door. Insistent. Desperate. It was accompanied by a voice that sounded near tears. "John? John, are you home? Please?"
He reached the door in two steps and flung it open.
Ellie Bartowski slapped his chest, "I really nee- Oh. John. I'm so sorry."
"Ellie, calm down." Casey looked out the door, checked the courtyard, the roofs. No immediate danger presented itself, but he pulled Ellie inside and checked the area again, while asking, "What's wrong? Are you all right? Is anyone hurt?"
"I'm...fine. I mean, no, I'm not fine. I'm not hurt but I'm not fine. The Awesomes are coming into town tomorrow, and I've been trying to prepare the perfect dinner to impress them, and every version of it has gone wrong, and...I know this is a long shot and your answer will be no, but, do you happen to have truffles?"
At the mention of Awesome's parents, Casey looked back at Ellie. Her hair was tied back, but wisps had escaped and stuck to her neck and face. There was flour on her cheek and apron. Her hands were covered in...something...and her eyes were wide with panic.
She nodded, looking for all the world like a little girl, like the innocent she was. He did his job to protect exactly this: good, normal people, living normal lives.
She blinked and shook her head. "John, I'm sorry." She rubbed her face, smearing it worse. "I came rushing over here like a crazy person and you probably don't even know what I'm talking about-"
"Truffles. Black or white?"
She blinked. "Black."
"I'll get them." When he returned she looked like she was frozen in place.
"Thank you. John, you don't have to...really...I mean, I don't...I'll pay you back-"
"Don't worry about it."
"Thank you. You've totally saved me." She moved away. "I should probably...before my... I'll get back to work."
He stood unmoving for a moment, then reached for the remote and turned off the TV. Closing the door behind him, he called, "Hey, Ellie, would you mind some help?"
"I'm throwing this bowl away. It's for your own good."
"No!" Ellie grabbed the edge and sloshed partially-whipped egg whites on both of them. "I know better. Really."
"Oh? Then what is this?" Casey pointed to the sun-yellow bowl between them full of runny glop.
"I'm tired, John. I've been at this for seven hours-"
"That's why you have to work smart, Bartowski." He set the bowl aside and took her shoulders, turning her. "You already have three soufflés in the trash. Did you mix those in this bowl?"
Ellie pulled away, frowning. "Of course not!"
Casey lifted the yellow bowl and raised his eyebrows. "Then why?"
"Um, desperate?" She pointed at the sink. "It was my last clean bowl. It was stupid. I know oil keeps egg whites from whipping and plastic holds-"
They chorused, "residual grease because it's porous." They stared for a moment, then smiled slowly.
"All right," he said. "First, I want to taste what you've been doing and see if I can see where you've gone wrong."
As she objected loudly, he blocked her and retrieved one of the soufflés from the top of the trash. He leaned against the counter and broke off a piece, careful not to flatten the air out of the delicate morsel. He rolled it on his tongue, pressed it against the roof of his mouth and hummed a little as the buttery-egg seemed to melt away in his mouth. Milk-egg-sugar heaven mixed with the texture of the truffle, a hint of liquor throughout-it was good. Very, very good. As he swallowed he opened his eyes and saw Ellie shifting from one foot to the other, chewing on her thumbnail.
"It's good," he said. "It actually reminds me of a dessert I had on a layover in Paris at a little place called La Truffière-"
Casey's gaze snapped instinctively to the windows and door before he finished asking, "What?"
"That...that's the name of the restaurant that the recipe came from!"
"Then you must be doing something right." Casey smiled at her. "Have you made a fruit coulis to pour into the soufflés? It gives them that extra...something."
Ellie nodded. "It's in the fridge. But first, what's wrong with these? They won't brown evenly on top, and they aren't rising enough. Then I can't get them to turn out of the dish-" She took a piece of soufflé. "They're not too dry, so I'm not over-beating them."
"Did you fold in the crême pâtissière gently, so that you didn't lose your beaten air?"
"Of course I did!"
"Fine." He held out a conciliatory hand. "You clearly have the mix of ingredients balanced correctly. What did you use to grease the dish?"
"Grease the dish?"
He nodded again.
Her eyes grew huge. "The baking dish?"
She covered her mouth, gasping around her hands, "I was supposed to grease it?"
He shrugged. "I always do. Brushing melted butter up the sides of the dish works best, I've found."
She flung her arms around him. "John, you are a lifesaver!" Grabbing the recipe, she scanned it. "Right there. It says 'greased soufflé dishes' right there, and I missed it."
"Let's start over then."
Ellie met his eyes, lifted her chin even higher, and nodded firmly.
Casey read the detergent bottle, then washed the bowls as Ellie prepped the ingredients and read the recipe aloud four more times.
"Make sure you use the micro-grater for the truffles," he said, drying with the softest tea towel he could find in the drawer.
"Already out." Ellie waved it over her head without turning.
"I'll beat the eggs then, while you make the crême pâtissière," Casey said. "Room temperature eggs, copper bowl..." He scanned the counter. "Where's your whisk?"
"Oh, the mixer's right over there." She gestured vaguely. "Could you hand me the Grand Marnier?"
He placed it in her hand, not letting go even when he felt her take its weight. When she turned, he narrowed his eyes. "I never use an electric mixer on egg whites." He released the bottle. "Whisk?"
She pointed. "In the drawer."
He separated the eggs and worked while he watched her. The steady whist-whist-whist kept time while she stirred, moved pans, grated, beat, warmed, stirred, poured, bathed, and folded. He kept one eye on his bowl, whisking until the stiff peaks of perfectly beaten egg whites formed. The sweet scent of not-quite-custard wafted through the kitchen, only to be overwhelmed by the delectable earthiness of the truffles as she added them. Ellie's precision and dexterity were impressive, and he grunted his approval. Bartowski's hero-worship of his big sister the doctor definitely made sense, even if she was prone to flurried panics.
He brushed melted butter onto the sides of the soufflé dishes while she folded her mixture into the egg whites. When she poured the mixture, each dish was filled precisely equally. Impressive again.
"Nice job, Bartowski...Ellie," he said.
"Ready for the next recipe, John?"
There were dishes done, counters wiped down, and ingredients pulled from the refrigerator. Ellie pulled out sea scallops as big as her fist, wrinkling her nose at the ocean scent. She washed them, removed the muscle, and dried them. Casey retrieved his salad spinner and washed the bag of fresh arugula Ellie said she'd gotten from the Farmer's Market. The fishiness of the scallops rinsed down the drain and the sharp chlorophyll of greens joined the fresh smells of the kitchen. He arranged the arugula as a bed on plates.
"I'm going to sear these to get a nice crust because-"
"-brown food tastes gooood," they chorused again.
"Oh my God, I LOVE Anne Burrell!" Ellie squealed.
"That deep voice is definitely seductive..." Casey cleared his throat. "She has excellent recipes. I've caught her show a few times. If you're putting the scallops on the arugula, you might want to deglaze them with reduced balsamic vinegar."
She picked up a tiny pitcher. "Already ahead of you, Mr. Casey. I'm going to drizzle olive oil over it too. You want to chop-"
"These chives and sun-dried tomatoes?" He grinned. "Happy to."
Butter sizzled in the pan, and delicious fresh garlic filled the air, followed by the unique smell of scallops. "You know," Ellie commented, "I always thought that truffles were uncultivatable, but it turns out there used to be quite a lot of..."
"Trufficulture. The men who worked the fields...too many of them were killed in World War I. France couldn't maintain production after the loss of all those men." Casey fell silent. He busied his hands with spreading the chopped chives and tomato over the plates.
Everything else was still for a long moment and Ellie placed a hand on his arm, her face open and sympathetic. He took a breath and said, "So, what do you say we chop that truffle, add it to the scallops, grate the last bit over the top, and see if this is good enough for the Awesomes?"
She smiled, her whole face lighting up. "Let's do it."
She added the scallops and the final flourishes to the salads and the were admiring their handiwork when the front door swung open without warning. Casey stepped in front of Ellie, reaching for his weapon.
"Hey, Ellie...John..." Devon's voice rang out then tapered off as he frowned.
Ellie pushed at Casey's arm, looking around him, and pointed at the food. "Devon! Look what John helped with!"
"Wow. This place smells awesome, you two." Devon dropped his keys on the front table and set his bag by the door. His gaze passed over the plates of salad and the individual soufflés. "Are you stressing again about my folks coming, honey?"
Ellie's eyes flitted from Devon to the food to Casey.
"You know how it is, Devon. She wants everything to be...awesome." Casey forced a smile.
Ellie's smile looked equally forced as she nodded.
"El, you know they love you. No one could possibly not love you. You're-"
"I know. Awesome." She nodded then reached behind her and grabbed Casey's sleeve. "John Casey, don't you dare even think about sneaking out. You spent the past three hours helping me, and you are going to stay and help me see what should be changed before I do the real version tomorrow. Anyway, I owe you dinner at the very least."
"That's all right." Casey tried to extricate himself from Ellie's grasp, suddenly desperate for the privacy of his apartment. "I should let you have a nice dinner alone."
Devon set his hand on a chair. "Hey, we usually eat with Chuck anyway, and you spent the whole afternoon saving my wife from herself. You sit down right here and I'll open some wine."
Ellie, keeping a firm hold on Casey's sleeve, pushed down on his shoulder and sat him at the table, then turned and deftly arranged the salads from two to three plates.
Clearly he wasn't going to get out of dinner with the happy couple. Damn it. He called down the hallway, "Devon, if you have a Provençal white, it will bring out the texture of the scallops, and they'll emphasize the fruitiness of the wine. Maybe a Château Simone Palette." He turned to Ellie. "And when we're ready for dessert, we can put the soufflés back in the oven, and they'll reinflate."
"John, I cannot thank you enough." She kissed his cheek.
"Don't mention it. Really don't." He cringed as he realized for the first time that Ellie would be telling Chuck all about this day, and that he would subsequently hear all about it from Chuck...and Walker. Joy.
"Found just the thing," Devon said, pouring the wine he'd opened. "Thanks for the suggestion. I had no idea you were such a gourmand, John."
"I've, you know, traveled, a lot. Like I said, don't mention it." He could feel his smile was shaky.
Ellie patted his shoulder as she set his wine by his plate. "Well, I'm definitely going to let you know how everything goes tomorrow."
Casey took a big drink of his wine. Protecting normal people might be why he did his job, but interacting with them got damned uncomfortable. "You don't have to let me know. It's going to go perfectly."
"That's what I keep telling her. Everything will be great, honey." Devon raised his glass.
"Thanks to you, John." Ellie raised her glass as well.
"Cheers," they all said.
"Let's give this a try," Devon said, digging in.
La Truffière is a real restaurant in Paris. (http: / www dot la-truffiere dot fr/ )
Their Black Truffle Soufflé recipe is apparently both famous and incredibly good...and they're generous enough to share it with those who wish to try and imitate it at home. http: / fxcuisine dot com / default. asp ? language = 2 & Display = 27 & resolution = high
Truffles and their history are quite fascinating. (See Wikipedia: http: / en dot wikipedia dot org / wiki / Truffle _ % 28 fungus % 29
Haute Living 2009 had an article about "Finding the Perfect Wine and truffle Pairing" that I used for the scallop recipe (modified) and the wine description. http: / www dot hauteliving dot com / 2009 / 10 / finding-the-perfect-wine-and-truffle-pairing
Searing Scallops directions here are something I TOTALLY want to do now: http: / culinaryarts dot about dot com / od / fishseafood / ss / searseascallops _ 5 dot htm