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The best way to find your way home is to cook

Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

I started with a 3-pound bag of yellow onions.

I pulled away the loose, papery skins; trimmed off the tops; cut them in half and peeled them; then cut them into half-circles. I piled them into a heavy saucepan with olive oil and butter, then cooked them slowly for almost two hours, until they collapsed into a soft pudding of onion flavor, just beginning to move from gray to light brown.

At the end, I had a whole tub of caramelized onions to tuck in my refrigerator for a couple of weeks or freeze. They’ll be there, ready to be spooned into soups or pastas or piled on pizza.

After 47 days without my kitchen, that was the first step back into my own life.

Yes, I counted the days. It actually has been longer than that since an ominous bump showed up under the kitchen floor, right in front of the dishwasher. That was in early October, and it hurled us into a complete kitchen renovation without much time for second-guessing or preparation.

The actual gutting started Dec. 2, the Monday after Thanksgiving. But in the weeks leading up to that, most real cooking had to stop while we emptied every cabinet, packed every spoon, fork and bowl, and picked out replacements for every appliance.

Through the project, I was surprised at how adrift I felt. My kitchen is my rudder, the place that always makes sense. Suddenly, we were just stumbling from meal to meal, eating yet another pizza while perched in the bedroom, the only room that was free of drywall dust.

I did what I could to make the time pass. I read the book “Provence 1970,” about the winter when Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard all ended up in France at the same time. I sorted through the stack of 20 or 30 cooking magazines that are always waiting.

I actually caught myself daydreaming through the steps of making a cake.

I’ll write more about the full renovation later. We’re not actually finished yet. But with the project about three-quarters done and a new gas range finally operational, last weekend was my first chance to start cooking again.

So I started with onions. Caramelized onions are pure flavor by the spoonful, and they make your house smell happy. Then I made short ribs, slowly braised with a sauce of sauteed onions, carrots and garlic, red wine, crushed canned tomatoes and a splash of red wine vinegar.

I peeled and diced a butternut squash and roasted it with diced carrots. I made a kale salad.

I cooked breakfast, I cooked lunch. I baked spare sweet potatoes to have through the week.

I made a small batch of beef stock and a big batch of chicken stock, cooked slowly from a scrawny hen. Some of the stock went into avgolemono, the Greek chicken and rice soup with lemon.

All of my steps feel odd. I’ll spend months unpacking and learning the new spaces. But a knife is still a knife, and a cutting board is still a cutting board.

And cooked onions still smell happy to me.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog, I’ll Bite, at, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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