Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hell House: the Unappetizing Edition

I really want you to continue reading my blog, so today’s post is a bit of a risk.  But I’m betting that all 8 of you out there are going to hang in there with me.  We can get through this together.

This fall, I’m taking a journalism class that’s got me writing all kinds of stuff that’s out of my comfort zone.  Add a husband who’s carrying on like a traveling salesman—no, not that way! he’s just out of town a lot this month for work—and I’m not cooking as often as usual, nor as successfully.  I'm still shopping down at the farmers markets (this week's pretty much the end of the season), but I've got Kiefer pears piled up waiting for canning and starting to rot.  (They're ugly but they cook up beautifully; Edna Lewis has great ideas for canning and poaching them in The Taste of Country Cooking.)  And I also brought home pork shanks and great drifts of mustard and turnip greens to braise and freeze.

It’s got to be good to know that food fanantics like me fail, right?  So, for this post—a tale of woe.  Call it the ghoulish Halloween edition, featuring rank, overcooked greens and handheld videos of braising pork shanks.  Because—oh yes, didn’t I tell you?—even my camera copped out on on me, so the only visuals I’m offering up are—gasp—videos, or snapshots from videos.


This is a full account of what happens when I try to cook full-tilt without the spouse in the house to throw his body between our offspring and the kitchen portal.  It’s not pretty—or tasty.

The ugly thing about this story is that one of the things I do when I’m not blogging my little heart out is write a column for Memphis Parent Magazine in which I promote the fiction that working stiffs can make healthy, delicious, homemade meals that the kids will greedily lap up.  That after these meals, they will beam at their parents, their expressions of dewy gratitude making it all worthwhile.  That, with a little planning and know-how, anyone can cook with and for kids.

The jig is up.

I work at home most of the time, so, unlike the rest of you who toil elsewhere and have to scramble to make supper in the evening, I usually get a jump on the meal.  (Yes!  I’m a cheater!  My column is a lie!)  But the system broke down this week in the face of unfolded laundry, dog walking, article deadlines, putting both kids to bed—all the tasks my husband helps with or facilitates.  Eye fatigue from watching too many episodes of 30 Rock on Netflix instant view hasn’t helped either.

Really, this week, with the huzzy gone, it’s like Hell House.  Amazing: a simple-ish meal like this one—some oven-braised meat and simmered roughage—would be a no-brainer with another adult in the house.  But I experienced a complete breakdown with my greens—a pair of generous bunches of mustard bought from Va Vang at the MFM—and they tasted—no other way to put it—awful.  Like peepee.  Gus said it first; I had to concur.  Worst I’ve ever cooked, and I know it wasn’t the greens’ fault.  (In fact, I blanched and froze a few bunches, and they smelled and looked great.)

The only way I can explain it that I lost my mojo.  And for me, the mojo depends on concentration. Without my full attention, the garlic scorched and the greens cooked too fast, losing their opportunity to get nice and tender.  (I swear by "Collard with Double Garlic," the definitely un-Southern treatment recommended in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.  I've tried cooking greens with all kinds of pork, and haven't gotten the hang of it.  Honestly, I seldom even like greens cooked that way in solid meat-and-threes, which is weird, because I usually hold that any food is improved by contact with pork.)

Even the gorgeous Newman Farm pork shanks suffered from my distraction.  The details that can make or break a dish—when you add the salt or red pepper flakes so the flavor can penetrate—slip my mind when I’m trying to cook and watch my kid simultaneously.

Not that the osso buco turned out badly. The smell was fantastic.  Some jowl from Kevin Barnes, the MFM's other all-pork vendor,  replaced the pancetta in the recipe my dad sent me.

Osso Sizzle
At least Solly and I liked it.  Gus, however, has become more discerning recently, and was put off by the unctuous connective tissue.

Gus's Critique

Honestly, I'm stumped.  People have cooked with kids around since, well, always.  Why is it so hard for us?  But I’m starting to think I need to take a look at simplifying my weeknight offerings.  At least until the kids are old enough to chop onions for me.

Here's my dad's recipe for the osso buco.  I skipped the cippolini, but if you can send your kids to the movies or out to chop some wood, you won't have to.

Pork Shank Osso Buco

(I have no idea where he got this recipe, so I can't attribute it properly.  Dad, if you read this, could you tell us in the comments section?) 

4 1 ½” pork shank pieces, cut across the bone like osso buco
¼ cup flour
1 tb paprika
salt & pepper
2 tbs olive oil
1 stalk celery
1 carrot, peeled
1 med. onion
1 bay leaf
1 cup pancetta, in ¼” cubes
1 cup chicken broth (preferably low-sodium – pancetta is salty)
1 cup white wine
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
8 cipollini onions

    1.    Blend flour, paprika, salt & pepper. In pie pan or Ziploc bag toss pork pieces to coat. Shake off excess flour.
    2.    Brown pork pieces in olive oil on all sides in olive oil, about five minutes. Remove pieces from pan and drain all but 1 tb. oil.
    3.    Chop celery, carrots and onion. Add to pan with bay leaf and pancetta. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, to brown veg and render fat from pancetta.
    4.    Nest pork pieces in sautéed veg and pancetta. Add broth and wine to cover pork halfway. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for one hour, turning meat occasionally. (Or put in 325-degree oven.)
    5.    Boil cipollini for 2 minutes, then drain and cool. Peel when cool enough to handle.
    6.    When shanks have cooked for 1 hour, remove from oven or flame. Set meat (pork and pancetta) aside and strain sauce to remove bay leaf and veg. Return meat and sauce to pan along with cipollini and red pepper flakes. Simmer for 30 more minutes. Uncover pan and reduce sauce for 5 minutes over high heat.
    7.    Serve over or alongside rice or Israeli couscous, garnished with chopped flat parsley.

Serves 4.


  1. As a single mom, I am thinking wow she gets to focus on one thing at a time, must be wonderful. But I also realize that it brings an even greater appreciation for the hubby. Even with little one’s when ever possible, let them help. This keeps them in view and helps to eliminate the worry and distraction of what they are doing when they all of a sudden get quiet. Best thing from this just maybe your experience to better assist you in relating to the parents that read the column. As a reader I often, feel like what world does this writer live in? There is no way this person works 8-10hrs a day, has to rip and run to soccer, football, cheer, or dance, take care of parents, etc and can come home and cook healthy 5 star meals. While I, honestly believe that even the busiest parents can give their children a wonderful healthy meal, it’s just sometimes easier said than done

  2. i love this post and love gus's critique.

  3. Thanks, Shannon! And way thanks, Anonymous, for your insight and for being my FIRST non-friend commenter. You've inspired me to work harder at writing for moms (and dads!) like you. Spread the love.

    By the way, I aim for 2 meals a week that I've really cooked. The rest is pasta, leftovers, whatever can get done fast.

  4. I don't know what disturbs me more, your admissions to being a fraud or the fact that your greens tasted like pee. I'm thinking the former is forgivable (you get extra credit for honesty) and the latter, while disgusting, could be worse.

    I'm way behind on your blog so I now need to catch up and see if your husband returned and brought you some extra mojo from his travels...