I woke up before five o’clock this morning for no apparent reason. The birds started their tentative chirping, and I pulled the covers over my head, trying to silence them. Husband was softly snoring, and after giving him a chance or two to stop on his own, I started nudging him, first with my elbow, and then with my knee. I was jealous of his state of unconsciousness, but in spite of all my tossing and turning, I could not reach it myself.
If I could have stayed in bed, even awake, opening the laptop and getting lost in the Great Unknown of the Internet, it would have been fine. But I had to gather all my strength and plod on to work, which only brought up tenfold my grumpiness level. Eyebrows almost meeting across the frown, I opened the patio door, desperately longing for a chilly morning domed with a gray sky. Instead of indulging me, warm California air rushed to greet me, embracing me in a comforting hug, sending off whiffs of eucalyptus and pine, while the green leaves whispered gently, rustled by a balmy breeze.
What an affront! I quickly closed the door and continued to get ready without making the house awash with sunshine and fresh air. The shades stayed drawn and the only illumination came from the fluorescent bulbs in the bathroom. The smell of freshly ground coffee did not bring a smile on my lips. Neither did Father’s detailed description of how he intended to spend the morning, which included a usual walk around the neighborhood and lying by the pool.
While I walked towards the car, the warm wisps caressed my arms, trying to seduce me out of my grouchy mood. I brushed them off, pursing my lips even tighter, not allowing my eyes to wander and soak up the beauty around me. Even at seven o’clock in the morning, there was not a hint of January to latch onto; not a shadow of a cloud to mar the perfect blue stretching all the way to the mountains in the east and the beach in the west. I found a small comfort only in trying to outsnarl the neighbors’ equally miserable chihuahua which seemed unwilling to share the sidewalk with humans.
Having only one contact lens (my right eye still recovering from the self-inflicted damage from dish-washing liquid and hourly shower-rinse in Berkeley), the reflection in the car window that greeted me might have been somewhat incorrect, but at that moment I saw an image pretty similar to Danny DeVito’s Momma, minus the cane. Even that failed to soften the frown on my face. Instead, I silently coveted the cane.
When I entered the restaurant, I was determined to nurse my joyless day to its limits. The first strike against my decision was a surprising appearance of my favorite manager, who certainly did not deserve to meet The Beast (he needs to maintain the highest opinion of me as classy, sophisticated, well-read European, the only one in his known world who can coach him to properly pronounce his Russian girlfriend’s name and gain immeasurable positive points in his personal life). My face reluctantly opened into a smile, and the grumpy persona started to crack.
The second strike was the optimism of my favorite co-worker who had decided to look beyond and venture into the unknown waters of high-end dining in his quest for a career. I have been nurturing this single father’s ambitions for months, teaching him bartending skills, and filling his head with all the possibilities fine dining offers. His enthusiasm managed to penetrate the sullenness and my smiles became somewhat less restrained.
What brought me 180 degrees back to normalcy was our short and always mean head cook who suddenly appeared from the kitchen wearing wrap-around cheap sunglasses and stood by our side waiting patiently for our outrageous burst of laughter. After that, it was all uphill. I tried really hard to salvage every little trace of misery from this day. The whole world seemed to have conspired to cheer me up and bring me to the bright side. And I surrendered unwillingly, grasping at straws and fighting all the way. The rest of the working day slipped away lightly, made endurable by jokes and friendly banter. There was a bounce in my gait as I approached the car. The harsh midday sunlight made me squint and put on my fake designer shades.
Walking toward the apartment I breathed in the warm smells of the late summer offered freely by stern January. I wished that the chihuahua would be out for another miserable walk, only to show it that we can embrace the world of beauty and make compromises on the right to sidewalks. But the only movement I saw was the rapid fluttering of a hummingbird’s wings as it fed on the lavender blossoms on our patio. I was humming We Are the World as I opened all the windows in the apartment. Husband blinked like Mr. Magoo, trying to comfort his inner mole. We are the ones that make a brighter day…
I was finished with the hibernation. I heard the call of the Earth slowly awakening. I wanted to bury my hands in soft, yielding dirt, and plant seeds. But my garden stayed behind at our old address in a suburb of Cleveland, and until I appropriated a small yard here in Southern California willing to let me sow, grow, and harvest, all I could play with were my potted plants lined atop the patio fence. The basil and thyme were clearly suffering, but the rosemary was going strong, defeating the seasons. No need any more to pluck it off the hedge at Costco.
I inhaled the odor of the herbs off my hands and thought of the azure waters of the Mediterranean sparkling under the sun, the silence broken only by the crickets and an occasional faint rustle of the ancient olive trees. I wanted to feel the warm waves lapping at my feet as the breeze brought the briny smells of the harbor. The kitchen floor morphed into the weathered terracotta tiles, the walls darkened, the invisible shutters squeaked while barely moving in the gentle wind.
My hands rubbed the olive oil, sea-salt, and coarse-ground pepper onto four plump, fresh lamb shanks. They sizzled fiercely upon touching the hot oil, but calmed down and absorbed the heat until a crispy, golden-brown skin appeared on their surface. After leaving them to rest on a plater, I threw into the skillet a couple of handfuls of chopped onions, two chopped carrots, some garlic, a diced red pepper, rosemary, and thyme. The aromas of the garden rose from the stove as the vegetables softened. Several glugs of red wine went in towards the end, some tomato paste, and a cup or two of chicken stock. I laid the shanks on top, covered them, and placed them in the oven. The sounds of bouzouki slowly reached me as one of my favorite Greek songs played from a corner. The notes invited some old memories of good friends, red wine poured from casks, unbridled laughter, and newly awakened desire, and I blissfully followed the tune, happy for the digression.
I was lost in the revelry for an hour, while the shanks softened in the oven, soaking in the flavors of the wine and spices. I peeled and quartered several potatoes and tossed them in the juices, resting the meat on top. After another half an hour the potatoes succumbed and the lamb quivered when I moved it to the plate. This was a meal worthy of a Greek shepherd, who would only have to cut big chunks of fresh bread and pour the wine to make it better. Whatever was left of my misery and my desire to cling to it was gone.
BRAISED LAMB SHANKS
- 4 lamb shanks, about 4-5 lbs
- sea salt
- freshly ground pepper
- olive oil
- 2 medium onions, diced
- 1 red pepper, diced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-3 sprigs of rosemary
- 2-3 sprigs of thyme
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 cup red wine
- 2 cups chicken stock
- sea salt, freshly ground pepper
- 6-7 russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Season the lamb with salt and pepper and brown fro several minutes on all sides. Remove from the skillet and let it rest on a platter. Turn the heat down to medium-low and sautÃ© the vegetables until softened, 8-10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Deglaze the pan with wine and stock. Season and stir for another minute or two.
Return the meat to the skillet, cover with aluminum foil and roast for 60-70 minutes. Uncover and toss in the potatoes, resting the meat on top. Return to the oven for another 30-35 minutes, until the potatoes are soft. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes and serve.