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A Fortunate Man


I awoke this past Friday morning to a gray drizzly day. Here in East Tennessee spring and summer are marked by thunder storms – great howling rages of wind and rain – interspersed, often several times in a single day, with blue skies and scudding high fluffy clouds. But winter bring steady day-long downpours, sometimes for days at a time.

I eagerly anticipate the arrival of the Fall season every year. It marks a new, warmer phase of my cooking. Tired of the light, quick meals of summer, I want the deeper, darker, more savory flavors of stews, braises, and soups. I crave the edgy flavors of winter greens like kale and chard and the heartiness of Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

So this year’s first genuinely fall-like day – also my birthday – called for a celebratory feast.

Click for larger image.And I wanted a braise. Braising is a cooking technique involving long cooking at low temperatures in some liquid. It was developed for tough (and inexpensive) cuts of meet and differs from soups and stews in that the meat is cooked whole – often on the bone – and is only partially immersed in liquid. It’s also a perfect fall and winter cooking method producing dishes you can spend an afternoon anticipating as the odors gradually flood your home.

I had a couple of lamb shanks in the freezer I’d bought from my favorite local meat man, but there wasn’t time to thaw them before cooking so I set out to the grocery to see what I could find. I found beef short ribs.

I added some carrots, turnips, and herbs to my basket (I had onions and potatoes at home). Then I decided I wanted some bread – and hell, if I was cooking I might as well cook. I already had rosemary for the ribs, so I got some grapes to make grape/rosemary focaccia – a favorite recipe. My last decision was the braising liquid: wine or beer? In this case I decided wine was a bit more celebratory than beer or ale.

I got home from the store around 1:00 and after putting everything away I made the focaccia dough. I use a Kitchen Aid stand mixer to do the bulk of the mixing and kneading, but making bread is an organic process and the best results require smelling, tasting, and especially touching the bread to know when it’s time to let it rise. So at the end I dump the bread onto a board to finish the kneading by hand. Sometimes this takes only two or three minutes, other times as long as 10 minutes. Only your senses can jude the bread’s life.

The dough went into a bowl on the dining room table to rise and over the next couple of hours my house was filled with the remarkable living smell of bread and yeast while I worked on an article. Then it was time to shape the focaccia and let it rise again. I also started the ribs.

After prepping the carrots, turnips, and a couple of onions I quickly browned the ribs in pork fat in my Dutch oven. Although I generally prefer cooking a braise in the oven, the need to keep the oven free for baking the bread meant I used the stove-top this time. Simmering gently, the smells of beef and wine intertwined with and then overcame the bread. By 7:00 my saliva glands were working overtime.

I needed a snack and a little rummaging turned up a tin of smoked oysters. The oysters, a few cornichons, and a glass of dry vermouth over an ice cube was perfect. With some jazz on the stereo, I put my computer and work aside for the day.

By 8:00 (my usual supper time) everything was done. I spooned short ribs and vegetables over horseradish mashed potatoes, tore a couple of hunks of bread off the loaf of focaccia, and poured a glass of red wine. A perfect fall, birthday dinner.

Food has always been an important part of my life – not as a source of energy but as a source of pleasure. And, in fact, I actually enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating. But the best is to cook, and eat. I am able to devote my life to doing both. I am a fortunate man.

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