February 29, 2012

A pork roast primer

Thank goodness this is the last day of February, one of the most difficult months I've had in a very long time. And to add insult to injury it had to be a leap year. But tomorrow marks a new beginning --the winter is pretty much behind us, spring is on its way, which happens to be the most beautiful season in the South, and we are (hopefully) through the worst of the cold season too. I thought this, combined with the fact that everyone in our household is finally healthy (including Olive, more on that later*)--was reason to celebrate.

(Irati and June)

So we invited some friends over for a dinner party last Saturday night. I planned it so June would be asleep when everyone arrived. Not that we don't enjoy her company, but we needed an adult dinner party, something we hadn't done in a long time. I invited two of my good girlfriends who have both been there for me throughout this year in so many ways, and our friends from Spain who have a daughter, Irati, who is June's age and one of her best friends. Her mother and I met through yoga class with our babies (which we started at 6 weeks old and continued for more than a year) and have been friends ever since.

I decided to make a recipe I'd seen in the February issue of Food & Wine for Braised Pork with a Cherry Gravy. And we decided to do a sort of pot-luck (which I normally don't do, but I have less time now to cook like that and I let my friends chip in). It really made it very easy. My sweet friend Lori brought a beautiful cheese board with marcona almonds and olives, a butternut squash with rosemary and olive oil side dish and a huge, vibrant salad. My other friend Stacia made Beet Cake with Bourbon Sauce for dessert from the same F&W issue. And Inigo and Nagore brought wine. I let them off the hook because they too have a baby - and another one on the way!

Everything turned out great, we had a lovely time and we all vowed to do it more often. The food was very comforting and warm, perfect for a late February dinner. I had a little ingredient problem, however, which tested my ability to think fast and I learned from it too. The recipe called for four pounds of boneless pork shoulder. Sounds straightforward. I don't cook meat that often but I have a basic knowledge of the different cuts. For example, I knew that a shoulder is more fatty and can stand up to long, slow braising and is what is used in, say, pulled pork for BBQ. But I also read the recipe through like I always do a few times before making my shopping list, and I knew it called for searing, then braising for 4 hours, then slicing the pork roast into medallions and browning again before serving. A little complicated and long (plus an overnight stay in the fridge), but it was the only thing I had to make.

(pork loin roast)

(pork shoulder roast- notice the fat in there)

The problem arose when I let the butcher at Whole Foods talk me into buying a pork loin roast instead of the pork shoulder that the recipe called for. Why did I do that when I knew that a park loin is not fatty and would be better dry roasted for a short time in order to not dry out completely? I am going to chalk it up to his arrogant style and being male, and my feeling intimidated by his greater knowledge of meat. I also neglected to bring my recipe in from the car so that I could have double (or triple) checked it. Lesson learned.

Butchers can be very helpful if you don't know what to make and you ask them for advice. But next time I will go to the meat counter armed and ready with the knowledge of what I want and not let anyone talk me out of it. I guess that very large and intimidating guy thought that because I was making pork medallions, I needed a loin. But this recipe called for braising the roast in wine and stock for 4 hours. It would have been shoe leather if I'd done that with this cut of meat.

What to do? I had 5 pounds of pork loin roast and all the other ingredients ready to go and I did not want to start over. So I followed the recipe to the letter, until it said to put the roast in pot covered with liquid in the oven and bake for four hours. I put it in on 350 and checked it after only 45 min and it was already up to 140 degrees inside. You do not want pork that's cooked beyond 150 or it will be terribly dry and tough so I took it out then, knowing I still had to brown it again at the end.

Then I boiled down the cooking liquid until it was only about 1 cup and a half and thick and strained all the solids (carrots, onions, celery and sour cherries) to make a delicious dark red gravy. The next day, an hour before the party, I took the pork sitting in the sauce out of the fridge to come up to room temperature, then I made the veggies that each piece was served on: a creamy mixture of leeks, fennel and onion with pecorino and chives cooked down to a soft, thick and creamy consistency. It was the perfect counterpart to the rich, cherry pork and gravy. Everybody loved it. And, although I was worried that the pork would turn out dry, it was actually not at all. It was delicious.

So- go with your instincts when you're in a bind. Don't throw it out and start over. And don't panic. Have the confidence to make changes at the last minute and chances are, everything will turn out great.

(June getting really excited about our new rental property, and construction).

(*PS: Olive is doing great, though she has been diagnosed with Addison's disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands and will have to be on medication for the rest of her life, but with the proper care, she'll be fine. We are relieved that we finally got a diagnoses and were able to start treating her. She's almost back to her normal self, whew.)

February 15, 2012

What doesn't kill you...

Life has been a little bit tough on us lately. First our girl got a severe case of the stomach flu a few weeks ago and I had never seen her so sick. She had only been sick one other time in almost 20 months so this was definitely the worst. There's nothing harder than seeing your child suffer. And then to clean up bodily fluids for days and days, all the while staying strong for your little one, makes you realize how much moms and dads endure. But what could be worse than that? Getting the same stomach virus yourself and having to care for a sick child while you are curled up on the bathroom floor. Could things go downhill from there? Yes, when your sweet husband who has been cleaning up after you catches the virus himself. A triple whammy of yuk. This is what happened to us a few weeks ago.

Then things got better, we all made a full recovery, June went back to school... and then came home a week later with a runny nose and cough which turned into a full-blown cold. It's going on a week of this stubborn cold now and the poor thing is hanging in there even though she's coughing and sneezing and having a hard time sleeping. But at least Daniel and I have stayed healthy through this one.

The one creature in our house who seemed above it all has been our sweet German shepherd mix Olive. She lays beside us and gives us those sad eyes when we're too sick or it's too cold to go out (the weather has been ugly too of course) but she never gives up on us. She's as sweet as a dog can be. Last weekend we noticed she wasn't her usual happy self but chalked it up to the cold and boredom.

Actually, she hasn't been her normal self in a while. Then she stopped eating her food. That's when we knew there was something wrong. So we took her to the vet yesterday morning and they told us they think she has kidney failure of unknown origin. She's very, very sick and more testing needs to be done. They told us not to think the worst. But it's hard not to. She is our first baby.

Daniel gave Olive to me on Valentine's Day five years ago. She was the best little puppy. They had named her "Amore" at the shelter and we renamed her Olive because of her black hair and big Olive Oil eyes. She was my constant companion in the days before June and while I was pregnant she kept me company and walked with me every single day and slept on my belly at night. It's true that your life changes after a baby comes into it and if you have pets, their lives change too. But Olive has never been anything other than a member of our family and she continues to be our "firstborn."

I have to believe Olive (or "Oloo" as June calls her) will pull through this. She's still a young and healthy dog. But bad things happen to good people (and animals) all the time. Of this I am certain. Disease does not discriminate, as my family knows all too well. Whatever it is that is attacking our beloved dog, we'll have to fight it right back. How could we not?

As the saying goes "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." When June was at her lowest one of the nights she was so sick and could not keep anything down, I gave her kisses and fed her little bits of ice and she looked up at me with the saddest eyes, but grateful, and said "good, Mama." I will never forget that. It's as if going through the trenches together somehow brought us even closer. So I know our little family will get through these tough times and hopefully, sunnier days are on the horizon.