The weekend heat was luscious. We sucked up vitamin-D-rich rays like eggplant absorbs olive oil. Like onions in butter, we sweated lightly, turning over occasionally, without urgency, browning slowly. Warm breezes slid over skin like strawberry sauce over vanilla ice cream, coating palest white with a rosy blush.
But all was not well in Stumptown.
A week earlier, amidst chill rains and unrelenting gray, a dinner date had been set: Family. Sunday. Lunch.
There’s a lot to be said for the Terrarium where b1 and b2 reside, but good food isn’t usually one of them. So being a dutiful daughter, I considered what they’d like to eat. What wouldn’t institutional chefs typically serve to good, God-fearing seniors? What couldn’t the b’s easily cook in their own small kitchen? What might I already have in the freezer? (No, I swear that part was just a coincidence. A happy coincidence I thought at the time, but now I wonder what nefarious spirit was at work.)
Though I don’t watch the weather, even I’m aware that winter’s coming to a close, and with it braising season. So what better occasion to cook up the gorgeous oxtails recently purchased at my Korean grocery? b2 craves rich, saucy dishes regardless of the season, and if they include membranes, marrows and the chance of mad cow disease, so much the better.
You can see where this is heading. The perfect storm. The tragedy that was Sunday.
Thawed Friday night and started Saturday for defatting, there was no going back, even as the mercury continued to rise. In the oven, the Le Crueset gathered steam, simmering mirepoix, wine, thyme, tails, merrily away, sending yeasty wafts out the open doors and windows to mingle with the neighborhood scents of fluid-drenched charcoal, sizzling burgers and newly shorn lawns. On Sunday, I pushed ahead, like a lamb to the slaughter, adding roasted mushrooms, fresh slivers of carrot, a sprig of rosemary and more wine for a final hour of folly.
“But wait!” you cry. “Replace the carmelized zucchini side with lemon-spritzed, reggiano-topped asparagus! That’s spring in every bite.” Oh but how b2 detests asparagus.
“Okay then for god’s sake ditch the mashed potatoes and boil up some pasta instead.” Disgust has crept into your voice. Don’t deny it. I hear it behind that facade of helpfulness.
But my pantry had let me down. I had pappardelle enough for three, maybe four, but not the five I needed. And besides, what would I do with four pounds of potatoes? I’d finally tossed the remaining Christmas russets abandoned in the basement…russets, for chrissakes…good for so little… And though I’m infamously cheap, the coffin was nailed: I had a real reason for not switching starches. The horns of the dilemma on which I sat were as pointy as the oxtails themselves.
1) Can one, in good conscience, toss a pile of bones onto a silky nest of pappardelle? Even if you deboned half, how could you achieve the proper per-mouthful proportion of chewy, succulent meat with slippery, starchy noodle? Where might the grated cheese land and melt? How could one manage the complexity of twirling a fork with one hand while maintaining a good grip for gnawing with the other?
2) And if I chose to pastacize properly, could I live with having denied my family the domed gel caps of semi-soft cartilage, the nooks, crannies and spines just begging to be sucked and scraped? Rich sauce is all well and good, but it’s the cartilage that makes life worth living.
And so it was. Out in the blazing 2 o’clock sun we faced our demons, sweating and laboring, battling lunch and attempting to quench our thirst with a rich bottle of Sicilian red that held its own as it morphed from cellar-cool to lukewarm to hot over the course of 20 minutes.
The dog snoozed in a shady patch of dirt.
Oblivious to our pain, BB texted his glee at his first G&T and grilled steak of the season.
Like Spartans rushing headlong to certain death at Thermopylae, we soldiered on.
In the distance, children laughed.