POLENTA WITH LAMB BOLOGNESE

I wake up every morning grateful.

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In the few moments that it takes for my brain to make sense of my surroundings and calibrate to the time and place, I still experience a residual moment of panic, a kind of pre-dread, a preparing for dread.  But just as the knot is about to form in my stomach, it releases.  You’re okay, I realize.  There’s nothing to be anxious about.  Everything is actually fine.

This time last year I was struggling with the very sudden outset of very intense depression and anxiety.  When I woke up each morning, instead of the knot in my stomach loosening, it would tighten.  The start of each day was a struggle, as if I were deep inside a hole that I couldn’t see a way out of; on top of that, I felt wrong for feeling bad in the first place, as if I “should” feel better, “should” be able to muscle my way out of the situation.  And on top of everything else, I felt terror—deep terror—that I would always feel this way, that I would never get back to being—not even happy, just okay.  I’ve never been so scared of anything before or since.

I mention this not only to mark the anniversary of what I only half-jokingly call my breakdown, but also because I bet there is a fair chance that someone who reads, or will read this blog, has felt or is feeling the same way.  If that applies to you, I know that everything I say will ring at least a little bit false and hollow; I get that, I remember that feeling.  But please do me this one favor; do not be so stubborn as to resist asking for help.  You can’t fight this monster on your own.  You have to get out of the hole first, and there are people (and perhaps also chemicals, as is/was the case for me) that can help pull you out.  Once you’re out, you can do the work of figuring out how not to get back in.  But you’ve got to get out, first.

My story is not all that unique or even noteworthy, but I find, frustratingly, that despite what we know about brains and how they can go awry, we still as a culture stigmatize mental health in a way that I find baffling.  We have no trouble discussing our various physical ailments or seeking treatment for illness that beset the body, and so should it be, too, that we discuss and check up on our inner workings without shame or guilt.

If it’s not you, but someone in your life, who is struggling with anxiety and/or depression, please know that you can make a difference.  I honestly would not have been able to make it through those months without the unconditional love and support of Jill and my friends; never have I been more vulnerable or broken open, so in need of care.  By listening, by encouraging me to seek help, and by holding the possibility of feeling better when I could not hold it for myself—they each carried me through that time, reminding me of who I was when I had forgotten.  I’ll never forget the afternoon that dear friend Megan met me at my psychiatrist’s office for my first appointment.  She didn’t do much—brought me a coffee, sat in the waiting room while I met with the doctor, and walked me back to my car—but her presence made all the difference.

I wake up every morning grateful, almost breathless with gratitude on some days.  To not feel the way that I felt is a relief and a joy.  If you are not yet there yourself, I promise you there is a way.  I—and all those who care about you—will hold the space for you, until you arrive to claim it.

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POLENTA WITH LAMB BOLOGNESE

Polenta is one of my favorite party tricks for fall; tired of all the summer pastas and burnt out on quinoa, sometimes you just need something hearty and creamy and this is the ticket.  We love lamb in my family, but you could substitute ground beef, pork, or turkey based on your preferences.  You could also sneak some wilted greens (spinach, chard) into the sauce, if you’re feeling virtuous–we weren’t.

for the bolognese:

1 yellow onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, shredded
large handful baby portabella mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 24-oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes
¼ cup red wine
1 lb. ground lamb
1 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried parsley
salt & pepper
olive oil

for the polenta:

2 cups polenta
6 cups water
large pat of butter (~2 T)
salt

serve with: grated Parmiagano Reggiano

In large, heavy-bottomed pot (I used Jill’s grandmother’s cast-iron Dutch oven, as I do whenever I want to invoke good cooking ju-ju), brown the lamb—in batches if need be—over medium-high heat, with a bit of olive oil to avoid sticking, breaking the meat into clumps with a wooden spoon.

Once cooked through, turn the heat down to medium and use a slotted spoon to move the ground meat to a heatproof bowl, setting aside for later.  You’ll probably have quite a bit of lovely lamb fat in the bottom of your pot at this point; you may wish to leave it all there, but I chose to pour out all but about a tablespoon or so.  To this, I added a few generous glugs of olive oil and tossed in the onions & garlic, sautéing until very fragrant and translucent.  Stir in the carrot and mushrooms, cooking until both have given up their liquid and the entire mixture has reduced in volume, approximately 6-8 minutes.

Now, pour in that red wine—and feel free to pour some for yourself, too—and turn the heat down a bit, allowing everything to simmer until about half of the wine is gone.  From here, add the tomatoes, gently breaking them up with your spoon, and perhaps fill the empty tomato can with a bit of water and add that to the pot, too.

Return the ground lamb to the pot, season with oregano, parsley, salt, & pepper, and bring the sauce to a simmer.  Cover partway with a lid, off-setting it just a bit so that the sauce will reduce.  Cook for as long as you can—at least 45 minutes and up to several hours, knowing that the sauce gets better the longer it cooks.

About a half hour before you’d like to eat, make the polenta.  Bring six cups of salted water to a boil; add the polenta and stir vigorously, turning the heat down to medium-low.  Cover the polenta and allow it to cook, stirring occasionally, until it reaches the desired consistency; I find that 30 minutes is just about right for me, but you can let it go longer, as it will continue to thicken.

Before serving, stir in a knob of butter and also a bit of salt to taste.  At this point, your polenta will make a creamy bed, perfect for topping with your Bolognese.  Left alone, the polenta will firm up, but—this isn’t a bad thing!  Use it to your advantage by greasing a square pan with olive oil and pouring still-warm polenta into it.  As it cools, the polenta will harden, allowing you to cut it into squares and grill, pan-fry, or roast it in the oven.  I love a square of leftover polenta, browned in a pan with olive oil and topped with a fried egg & plenty of Parmesan cheese: the perfect savory winter breakfast!

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SLOW COOKER CARNITAS

There’s been a slew of slow-cooker talk among my friends lately, and I’m pretty sure this means that we’re all getting old.

slow-cooker carnitas | Blue Jean Gourmet

Don’t get me wrong, though–slow cooker old is not a bad kind of old; slow cooker old is practical and thrifty, and it’s practical and thrifty precisely because you’ve learned that these attributes are not nearly as un-cool as you thought in your naive youth.  Slow cooker old is the kind of old that means you have the wisdom to realize that you can’t actually plan out your whole entire life—the way you thought was possible when you were thirteen—but, that you can actually plan out your dinner ahead of time, prep it before you go to work, and sit at your desk with the knowledge that your food will be all but ready for you when you get home.  It’s a triumphant kind of old, this slow cooker age.  I like it.

My slow cooker is most often used to cook beans, make stock, applesauce or something similar (I did an apple/pear butter last week that Shiv loves), and to tackle larger cuts of meat, like this pork shoulder.  Like many others, I discovered the slow cooker in graduate school, when money was tight; the aforementioned beans & homemade stock were easy ways to feed myself cheaply, as were the less expensive cuts of meat that benefit from the long braise that a slow cooker provides.

Though I love to extol the virtues of the slow cooker, I’m far from an expert.  I know that there are many more ways I could be using it, and I’d love to hear from y’all about how you utilize yours.  Let’s have a slow cooker conversation that our younger selves would look upon in horror.

If I’m going to be a sellout, at least I get to bring these carnitas with me.

PS: I’ve updated ye olde book information page with links to a few new things!: a guest column I wrote for Memphis’ paper, The Commercial Appeal, and a video of the chapel talk I gave at my alma mater, St. Mary’s Episcopal School, last week.

 

SLOW-COOKER CARNITAS

As with pretty much all slow cooker recipes, this is more of a method than anything else.  The ratios what matter here, more than exact measurements, since what you’re going for here is essentially to cook the pork for a long time, with some liquid so it doesn’t dry out, and in the presence of whatever flavorings you’d like to impart.  Therefore, feel free to improvise; some folks I know use water instead of stock, and others apply the rub to the pork ahead of time.  Others cut the meat into chunks before putting into the cooker, but I didn’t find that to be necessary, given the size of my shoulder (if yours is lots bigger, you may want to give that a try, and you will probably need more liquid).

Some people buy boneless shoulders, but I always prefer to cook with a bone, because it adds so much flavor; trust me, you won’t have any trouble removing the bones when the meat is done cooking, because it’s basically going to fall apart (in the best possible way).  Finally, do NOT skip the broiling step; it’s what makes the carnitas taste like carnitas.

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ingredients:

1 pork shoulder roast (also called “pork butt”) – mine was right at 2 lb., bone in
2 cups chicken stock
juice of one orange
1 large onion, sliced
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled & smashed
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. ancho chili powder
½ tsp. chipotle chili powder
½ tsp. salt

Combine the cumin, oregano, chili powders, & salt in a small bowl.  Rub all over the pork shoulder before placing the shoulder in the bottom of your slow cooker.  Cover the shoulder with sliced onion & garlic; pour liquid around the shoulder, cover and cook on “low” for 10 hours.

When you’re ready, remove the shoulder from the slow cooker and shred with a fork, removing any bones (but not the fat! ).  Scatter the pieces in an even layer on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil in the oven for 5-8 minutes, or until little bits and pieces of the pork begin to brown and crisp up.

Serve with tortillas and the accompaniments of your choice.  Ours were: queso fresco,  guacamole, pickled red onions, & fresh salsa.

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