Chef Tom – Amira Part 1 and Mechoui

I am nearly done with my advanced Short Story Fiction class. Been working on this story for a few weeks now. So much fun. Here is the first half. Second half will be next week. Still a draft, but it’s getting closer.

The exercise was to choose two photos from a number of cutouts from old National Geographic magazine – one person and one place. This photo was my “who” and the place ended up being Tel Aviv. Enjoy.

Amira

Amira  

Six years ago, when I attended An-Najah National University at eighteen, my psychological profile indicated a certain degree of moral flexibility which prompted the Palestinian Security Services (PSS) to recruit me, put me through four years of rigorous training, and turn me into an elite assassin. They assured me that no one suspects a woman.

General Majid himself claimed it was my regal bone structure that had them place me with the Ophir Modeling Agency in Tel Aviv. Being a fashion model was an effective cover while I trained hard. My weapon of choice became the sniper rifle. I grew to love the precision and cleanliness of arms-length warfare, over the chaos of hand-to-hand. As my passion for accuracy grew, I rose quickly through the ranks as an agent. Still, as much as I prefer precision, I’m not a machine.

As the first one to be on stage, I take my place behind the thickly beaded curtain and discretely peer out to the VIP table at the far end of the long carpet. Israeli Prime Minister Ari Evnine and his wife Ayelet are surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, stately, stone-faced, all wearing the same severe black. I can’t see them distinctly, but I notice Evnine leaning forward and speaking into the ear of one of the two massive men seated strategically between the end of the runway and the couple. In her ivory off-the-shoulder gown with a giant bow at the waist, Ms. Evnine is a delicate lotus drifting in a dark pond.

It appears that every seat is occupied in the Golda Meir Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Tel Aviv. The aromas of garlic and roasted meat compete with designer perfume and cigarettes. Leaders of the European fashion industry, executives from many of the world’s haute couture magazines, are drinking, eating, and chatting, their exclusive tables clustered closely on either side of the richly carpeted runway. The excitement in the room is palpable.

All models have been assigned custom jewels from the city’s own Leviev. I am wearing a pair of diamond earrings fashioned to echo the opulent chandeliers suspended over the audience. Moments before I go on, I reach into the folds of my caftan and swiftly swap one of my earrings for a glass replica laced with the deadly Sister of Satan.

Earlier, as vans filled with giant trunks of clothing and Ubers carrying angular models arrived for the show, I overheard the floor manager’s loud whisper to a model, “An anonymous threat to the Prime Minister’s life was called in but Evnine insisted the fashion show go on as planned, with him in attendance. Tonight is his daughter’s international debut to the world.”

Tamar Evnine, the hot designer igniting the fashion industry and the creative genius behind tonight’s event, is Evnine’s oldest. She is also the woman with whom I have fallen madly in love. I have known many powerful people with formidable charisma, but never has anyone shaken me as she did when we first met. Striking beauty and a refreshing intellect. Like a great murmuration she has turned my insides into a mad swirl. In just a few moments I am to assassinate her parents.

From behind me a hand grabs my shoulder. My body tenses, ready to strike. “Amira, you look beautiful. Here, let me get this.”  Tamar reaches up to adjust the deadly earring. Quickly, but tenderly, I grab her wrist. She looks me in the eye and smiles. “It’s crooked, darling.” I gently adjust the jewel. “How’s that?” I ask, smiling. “Better.” she says.

Tamar glances back over her shoulder at the crowd of models and dressers who are preoccupied with last minute make-up and adjustments before quickly leaning in to kiss me on the mouth. I squeeze her hand as she walks back to her other models.

I’m not breathing. Targets usually never bother me, but tonight I feel sick to my stomach. I am a sniper. I have never killed anyone in public, and my targets are Tamar’s parents. I can’t go through with this. The world will be watching. The PSS will be watching. I know some of them are here. But I have no choice. Letting go of the curtain, I look back towards the dressing rooms to search the small crowd for Tamar – as if she can help me.

The music stops. The lights in the giant chandeliers dim. The room grows silent. Guests adjust themselves in their seats for a better view. The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields begins to play over the sound system, growing in volume for the ten-second musical intro. On the words, “Let Me Take You Down” a bright spotlight hits the curtains on the main stage, which slowly open. With a hard swallow, I step out into the spotlight.

I am wearing my favorite piece in Tamar’s collection, the signature look of her Sixties Retro line, a multi-colored psychedelic caftan. My heart pounds against my ribs. The fabric is silky and light against my skin. I enter the morass of photo flashes, bright glints of wine glasses and china, and pungent aromas of food and smoke. Raising my arms to spread the silhouette of the stunning dress, the bright pattern glows in the spotlight. There are gasps from the audience. Turning and posing down the long carpet, from the corner of my eye I see the sparkle of my weapon.

Tamar trained me to draw people in by finding someone in the audience with whom to have eye contact. I lock eyes with Martin sitting at his own table next to the runway, here tonight to make sure I complete my task. Difficult to miss in his indigo jacket with the golden cravat, his gaunt face, and unruly shock of white hair. My direct eye contact surprises him and he quickly looks away. I expose no sign of recognition.

I recall the day the PSS introduced him to me as my handler. Martin Darwesh, a murky creature with a thin, shadowy face and fierce Dracula eyes. To me he became The Count. Tall with a slight stoop, his dark elegance has a jagged edge. He’d spent his entire adulthood managing a deadly team of assassins, recruiting black-market weapons dealers, and contracting with the world’s most disreputable forces. As sinister as he is, the man is revered by the PSS for being a fierce patriot. He will do anything, talk to anyone, contract with the worst, to do what he must in order to protect his country. When the government wants something done off-books, Martin is on speed dial. Yesterday morning he contacted me to meet him at his favorite rendezvous, a small café near the beach in Jaffa.

“Amira, darling, sorry for the early call. We need to meet as soon as possible. This is important.“

I was about to make coffee for me and Tamar, who was upstairs in my bed, so I said, “I am just up. I need two hours.”

“Make it one. I’ll see you at the café at 8:30.” He hangs up.

I arrived at the cafe at 8:32 am. The place was starting to get crowded. Locating Martin at his table off to the far side away from other customers, I kissed him softly on both cheeks. As I took my seat, I could feel his eyes boring into me.

“You’re late, Amira darling. But thank you for making it work. You look lovely, as usual. Did I interrupt this morning?”

“That’s none of your business, Martin. And yes, you did.”

“Is he someone new?”

“Martin!”

“Sorry. I just want to make sure you’re ok.”

“Is that all you want?” I said, with a bit more menace in my voice than was necessary. Studying Martin’s sad, slightly desperate eyes, I softened a little. Still, he did not need to know everything. “Yes, if you must know, I just met him. He’s nobody.”

“That’s good to hear. Good to hear. As you’ve likely surmised, you have a new target.” He slid a brown file folder next to my coffee cup. I picked it up, opened the file, and studied the photograph of Ari Evnine and his wife Ayelet.

I closed the file and pushed it back towards him. “Hard pass, Martin. I can’t do this. Find someone else.”

The applause grows to a thunderous roar. I turn and smile into the flashing bulbs. I find the eyes of James Martin, editor of Mode Britain, sitting with his entourage at the table next to Martin. The Count’s creepy voice echoes through me.

“Amira, since when do you have a say in who your target is? You do not get to say no.” He continued to talk. I closed the file, then I closed my eyes. Sitting back in my chair I breathed deeply a few times to find my center.

“Are you listening to me? I know his daughter is your boss. I’m sorry. As I said, this was last minute, but is of the utmost urgency. This is exactly what you’ve trained for, Amira. This is your duty.”

“My duty. Martin, please, who the hell do you think you are talking to? How do you expect me to take them out if I am walking the show?”

“Evnine is just about to give the go-ahead for targeted attacks on Gaza. PSS has already started spinning the narrative. The blame will go to Hamas. We’ve built a backstory for you. This isn’t an anonymous sniper kill. Amira. Majid wants this to be loud and public.”

Martin slid a small, black velvet box in front of me – the kind that usually holds something expensive. Inside was an exquisite diamond earring. “Their table will be positioned at the far end of the runway. Just before you go on, you will replace one of your earrings with this replica. The diamonds are hollow glass and contain enough explosive to take out everyone within a two-meter radius. When you reach the end, carefully remove the earring and toss it high in the air over their table so that it comes down on the floor next to them. The impact will be enough to detonate the chemical. You’ll need to move fast to get out of range. We’ll have people there to exfil you to a safe location. I’m sorry, my dear. There is no time. This is the mission.”

What I said was, “You know I don’t do up close and personal, Martin. Especially public! Exploding earrings are not my style.” What I thought was how can I possibly murder my lover’s parents.

Strawberry Fields, forever. I shift my gaze to an enchanting, dark-haired woman in emerald silk at the next table. As I pass, she smiles up at me. I recognize her. The photo on Tamar’s mantle. Tamar’s older sister. Her eyes are as soft and lovely as her sister’s. Tamar’s whole family is here. This was not in the brief. I break eye contact. I cannot do this. Not this time. It was only this morning that I held her in my arms.

Something Middle Eastern seemed appropriate.

Mechoui

This takes time to cook. But it’s worth it. Your house will smell amazing. Set your alarm if you’re planning to serve it for lunch. Otherwise it’s trouble free. Here are some tasty side dishes to serve alongside. If you’re aiming for authenticity, prepare a simple couscous.

Charred Broccolini with Sweet Tahini

Labneh with Olives, Pistachios, and Oregano

Mechoui – Slow Roasted Lamb, Moroccan Style (mesh-way)
Serves 6-8 generously

Ingredients:

1 whole shoulder of lamb, about 5 pounds

3 tbsp butter, at room temperature

1 heaped tsp. cumin powder

1 tsp. coriander powder

1/2 tsp. fennel seeds, ground

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. cayenne

1 tsp. smoked sweet paprika

4 garlic cloves, crushed

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp. salt

½ cup water

Seeds and juice of about 1/2 pomegranate

A handful of fresh coriander, roughly torn

Directions:

Mash the softened butter in a bowl with the spices, garlic, salt and pepper. Pat the meat dry with kitchen paper, make deep cuts in it with the tip of a sharp knife and rub the spiced butter over the lamb, pushing some into the slits. You can do this the night before you want to eat, if you like – just put the lamb in a roasting tin, cover and refrigerate.

Bring it back to room temperature for half an hour before putting it in the oven.

Six hours before you want to eat, pre-heat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas Mark 2. Pour the water into the roasting tin around the meat and tent with foil, sealing it tightly round the edges. Roast for five hours.

Remove the meat from the oven, pouring off and reserving all but a cupful of the juices. Use this final cupful to baste the meat. Increase the heat to 220C/425F/Gas Mark 7 and put the lamb back in, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes until well browned. Allow to rest for 15-20 minutes before serving.

Meanwhile skim the fat from the rested juices and discard. Put the reserved juices on the stove and simmer hard until reduced and concentrated in flavor. Check the seasoning and keep warm.

Cut the pomegranate in half and, holding it over a plate, whack it with a wooden spoon until the seeds pop out. Discard any bitter membrane.

Put the meat on a warmed serving dish, pour over a little of the sauce and scatter with the pomegranate seeds (plus any of its juice) and fresh coriander. Eat while hot. It will be gently spiced and falling-off-the-bone tender.

Recipe and Photograph: Linda Duffin, Contributor, Food Blogger

=CTH=

Chef Tom is currently transitioning from Personal Chef to Private Chef. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at www.hippkitchen.com

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