Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What are friends for?


Over the next couple of weeks many of these corn kernels will be planted in several undisclosed locations around the Northeast. I know this because I am personally dispersing them as we speak.

In the interest of plausibly denying the specific whereabouts of the crops I have chosen to not ask any questions.

Neither should you.

See, back in 2012, I came into possession of a handful of seeds meant to grow corn not for eating but for manufacturing polenta. (Here's the original post, showing how to make your own polenta at home.)

Though the seed was at one time available in the United States it hasn't been for several years now. I never was able to find out why it was banned, not definitively, though a well-informed friend and I have long suspected that The Evil Monsanto might have something to do with it. (You know, the Monsanto that controls around 80 percent of the country's corn crop.)

This friend—let's call him "Tony"—surprised and delighted me the other day by slipping me a couple ears just in time for this year's planting season. I had stopped growing the polenta corn three years ago but Tony has kept it up ever since I gifted him with the seed to start his own crop.

Tony makes his living... Scratch that, nobody needs to know what he does. And he lives in... Actually, best we not reveal this information either. The point I'm trying to make is that the guy knows about growing stuff. And he's become committed to keeping this strain of polenta corn around for as long as he is able, no matter what Big Ag does to kill off such noble efforts.

Sadly, I had somehow managed to lose sight of my responsibility in this mission.

I'm lucky to have a friend who could set me straight.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The letter


Some time before our mother died, back in the winter of 2006, my brother Joe and I sent her to live in a nursing home. We did this reluctantly and not entirely of clear conscience, but we did it nonetheless.

While Joe and I shared responsibility for finding a good home for mom, most of the clerical work fell to me. There were matters pertaining to her debts and to Social Security benefits, a small checking account, insurance and so on, all requiring close attention and resolution.

My best resource in navigating through the necessary legal paperwork was a worn brown folder that mom kept hidden in the bottom of a dresser drawer. In it were things like her birth certificate and my father’s honorable discharge papers from the Army. There was a yellow Western Union telegram from the Vatican in Rome marking their marriage in 1954, the deed to the cemetery plot in Brooklyn where my father had been buried in 1970, along with many other useful and not so useful items. 

Three documents, unrelated to the task at hand, stood out so far from the rest that they literally took my breath away. Each was folded and placed in a separate white envelope and each envelope had a single word written in my mother’s unsteady hand: “Michael,” “Joseph,” and “Ralph.” 

Mom had written each of her three sons a goodbye letter. 

And she didn’t seal the envelopes.

Through tears I managed to read only five words of my mother's letter to me: “You were a beautiful boy.”

The past tense of it all was more than I could bear and so I quickly folded the letter and returned it to the envelope where it belonged. I never told my mother that I'd found the letters, and didn't mention them to my brothers either.

Eighteen months later I finally managed my way through the rest of the letter. It was just after Joe called to say that mom had died. The night nurse had contacted him earlier in the evening to ask that he get to the nursing home as soon as he was able. But soon wasn’t soon enough. Mom died with a very lovely woman by her side but not any of the sons that she had dedicated her life to.

I delivered mom's letters to my brothers just as soon as we were all together. My wife Joan and I had driven down from Maine to New York early the next morning, Mike and his family flew in from Ohio the following day. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys about this sooner, but I figured this is probably the way she wanted it,” I told my brothers. 

“I only read mine last night,” I assured Joe, “after you called.”

I don’t know when or under what circumstances my brothers read their letters; they didn't read them in front of me. I don't know what mom wrote to them either. We’ve never discussed it. 

I tell myself that that’s okay. What a mother says to her son at the end is only her business and his, nobody else’s.

Mom's letter to me followed the same themes that defined her life: Never let anything or anybody get between you and the family; stay close to your brothers no matter what; be good to people; love one another.

I hope the letters in my brothers' hands are at least a little bit like the one our mother wrote to me. Because it all just sounded so very much like her.

And that's a sound worth hearing. 

Again and again.

Happy Mother's Day everybody!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Braised short ribs with pine nuts



This is one of those cook-it-today-but-maybe-eat-it-tomorrow kinda deals. The flavors knit together even better with time.

I had it both ways. The batch of short ribs I prepared the other day were eaten that same evening, but there were enough leftovers for another couple of meals.

I ain't as dumb as I look.



Very liberally salt the ribs (4 1/2 pounds here), and don't forget some freshly ground black pepper.



Then dredge in all-purpose flour.



In a large dutch oven brown the ribs in a plenty of olive oil, then remove and set aside.



Add one diced onion, two celery stalks, two carrots, one leek, eight garlic cloves, a few anchovy filets, some thyme, and half a cup of pine nuts, and saute until softened.



Then add a bottle (750 ml) of red wine (I used an inexpensive Sangiovese but most any dry red will do) and turn up the heat to high. Note: If you prefer to use a dry white wine instead, nobody's stopping you.



After the wine has boiled for five minutes or so add a quart of homemade stock (I had chicken stock around but beef or even vegetable stock would be fine). Cover and put in the oven, preheated to 350-375 degrees F. The ribs should cook for around three hours, but every 45 minutes or so turn the ribs.



These short ribs were in the oven exactly three hours. When I put a fork to the meat it was about as soft and tender as it gets, which is what you want.



Remove the ribs and toss the bones.



Then slice the meat into inch or so pieces.



And serve with some of the sauce. On this particular occasion My Associate had prepared a very nice mashed potato and celery root combo, which turned out to be a pretty much perfect match. However, most anything will work here (egg noodles, spaetzle, polenta, whatever).

Just be sure to make enough for those leftovers.
 
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