Saturday, December 24, 2011

Braised Veal and Bug Spray

     In our third year of medical school, my girlfriend Rana and I developed a sister-like bond, drawn together by a mutual love of food and cooking. We spent hours talking about fabulous meals we'd created for our families in the past, as well as exchanging tips and techniques, such as the proper way to prepare risotto. To produce a good risotto, you first pan-toast the arborio grains in a little olive oil. You should already have several cups of stock, barely at the simmer, so that once the rice is toasted, you can begin incorporating the hot stock, a cupful at a time, stirring continuously until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. You then add another cup of stock, stirring again, and repeating until most of it has been used. When you have perfectly al dente rice suspended in a deliciously creamy sauce, the risotto is finished, and you can then sprinkle in a handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Rana introduced me to the wonders of parmigianno reggiano, which adds salty tanginess to a risotto, and is also delicious on its own, with a few drops of excellent quality aged balsamic vinegar. Since most of our conversations centered around food, we decided to inaugurate her kitchen by throwing a little dinner party at her house.
     Rana was renting an old Craftsman-style bungalow at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Vineville Street in Macon, GA. It was a lovely house, with sturdy walls, hardwood floors throughout, and a big front sitting porch. It had three bedrooms, one of which housed her grand piano, two large tiled bathrooms, an attic and a basement. The bathroom in Rana's room had an inner door handle that frequently came off the moment you stepped inside, and you were pretty much stuck in there until someone noticed you were missing and came to let you out. To me, though, the best part of Rana's house was her kitchen. It wasn't all that modern or updated, but she had a gas stove top, and several large Le Creuset Dutch ovens, which were perfect for slowly braising tough cuts of meat. Her cookware was well-seasoned from years of caramelizing meat and onions, and each faintly perfumed browned remnant, clinging to the bottom of her enamel-coated cast iron pots, revealed a sensual glimpse of all of the fragrant dishes she'd ever created.
     Our dinner party menu included osso bucco and risotto, and I think I brought a pavlova for dessert. A pavlova is an Australian confection, named after the Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, and although it looks impressive, it is really quite easy to make. You start with a classic French meringue, made by whipping egg whites and sugar to stiff, glossy peaks. The egg whites need to be at room temperature to achieve the best volume, a task which can quickly be accomplished by placing the eggs in a bowl of warm water while you are gathering the rest of your your supplies. Your bowls, utensils, and beaters also have to be absolutely free of any traces of fat, or you'll end up with a sad, deflated goo. You whip the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar at low speed until the mixture resembles a thick foam, at which point you begin adding sugar by the tablespoonful, along with vanilla, a bit of cornstarch, and a splash of vinegar, increasing the speed until it has coalesced into a uniform, pristinely white amalgam that holds its shape as the beaters are lifted from the bowl . You then mound the silky mixture into a circle on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake at the lowest oven temperature until the shell is crispy on the outside, but still creamy inside. Finally, you fill the delicate, airy shell with fresh fruit, such as kiwi, strawberries, and peaches, and top it with a generous dollop of sweetened whipped cream. Truly elegant in its simplicity, the dessert can be made a day or two in advance, as long as the ambient humidity is low, and assembled just before serving.
     When Jim, the boys, and I arrived at Rana's house, she had already finished searing the veal shanks and browning the vegetables for the osso bucco, which was happily simmering away in a giant blue Dutch oven. A Miles Davis CD was playing in the background, and the atmosphere was casual and relaxed. We snacked on olives, sopressata, and Brie, spread thickly on good crusty baguette, and she introduced us to Alice White Chardonnay. Back then, big oaky Chardonnays were standard, yet this wine was pleasantly crisp and light, making it dangerously drinkable; at $5 a bottle, it was a sound value for poor foodies like us. Nick and Rory, who were 9 years old, had gorged themselves on cheese and Coca-Cola, after which they became a little restless, and asked if they could explore Rana's attic. The attic stairwell adjoined the kitchen, and she invited them to go up to have a look, while the three of us continued chatting and getting dinner ready. We took turns, stirring the risotto and putting a salad together, inhaling the rich aroma from the veal braising on the stove. Rana had two sons, Gian Carlo and Christian, who were both young adults, and she entertained us with stories about funny things they did when they were small. Gian Carlo was a musician, an excellent drummer, and he was living in Atlanta with his father. Christian, I believe, was in the Navy, stationed out of state; he later became a top gun pilot.
     Soon, the boys came down from the attic, and now, they wanted to watch TV. Rana's television was back in her bedroom, and she settled them on her king-sized bed, which had lots of big, downy pillows. The bedroom quickly became Nick and Rory's favorite place in her house, and after we left that night, Rana found a sweet little note on her nightstand, in which the boys thanked her for dinner. This note-writing became a tradition, and Rana saved several of them for me to keep.
     The osso bucco was nearly ready, gloriously tender and falling off the bone, but the risotto still had a little cooking time left. We were in the moment, enjoying the visual and olfactory beauty of our feast in its various states of readiness, mutually pleased that the boys were content and quiet, watching cartoons in Rana's bedroom. There were no time constraints and no sense of urgency: we were thoroughly relishing the process of a meal in progress. As we stood around, sipping our Alice White and nibbling on olives, all three of us became acutely aware of a strange odor which seemed to be wafting into the kitchen from somewhere else in the house. It was an acrid, overpowering smell, the kind that burns the insides of your nostrils, provoking an instant wave of nausea. We thought maybe there was a gas leak. Jim went back to the bedroom to check on the boys, and they were nowhere to be found. We split up, calling into the attic, although none of us had seen them come into the kitchen to go back up there, while frantically checking the other bedrooms, the front porch, and the backyard. Except for Miles Davis, the house was eerily silent, and we were getting more worried by the minute. Where could Nick and Rory possibly have gone? Our search efforts exhausted, Rana and I met back up in the kitchen, which was now completely enveloped in a blanket of caustic fumes. After a few moments, we heard heavy footsteps, which sounded like they were coming from under the house. In our panic, we had completely forgotten about the basement. We ran back to the hallway, where Jim was emerging from the basement with Nick and Rory. They had slipped, unnoticed, out of her bedroom to do some more exploring, and had discovered the door to the basement. One of their favorite cartoons featured a bespectacled boy named Dexter, who had a secret laboratory, where he mixed potions and invented all sorts of interesting things, and Rana's basement served as a perfect spot for Nick and Rory to enact some of his experiments. When Jim found them, they were industriously emptying and pouring liquids back and forth from several brown glass bottles, one of which happened to be a very old vintage of malathion, an insecticide typically used to get rid of mosquitos. They were like two tow-headed mad scientists on the brink of a ground-breaking discovery, and they were having a grand old time. Alarmed and concerned about organophosphate poisoning, Jim rushed them back upstairs, where we scrubbed their hands and monitored them for evidence of parasympathetic signs and symptoms. They were fine, but I think their egos were a little bruised after having their lab busted up.
     We opened all the doors and windows to air out the house, and somehow, we managed to enjoy our dinner amidst the noxious cloud, redolent of braised veal and bug spray. Jim and I were terribly embarrassed about what the boys had done. Rana, in her usual perfect form, remained gracious and accommodating, showering the boys with hugs before we left that evening, and inviting us to come again soon. It took months for the malathion smell to dissipate completely. Over the years, Rana and I have cooked many memorable meals together, but that disastrous first dinner party remains our all-time favorite. Rana later confided to us that she never saw another bug in that house again. Perhaps the boys' ill-fated experiment had been a success after all, simultaneously driving all the bugs away while solidifying the foundation of our friendship, one which is built on the joy of cooking for the people we love.

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