Even with my busy schedule, I do my best to find time to read. I read on the train as I travel to and from work. I read for a few minutes before I go to bed. I read in the park at lunch time weather permitting. Reading is to my soul what eating and breathing are to my body. I need it. It is a form of self-care for me.
Despite these stressful times, I am also determined to cook my meals. It would be easy to rely on takeout when I'm in rehearsal almost every night, but that's both expensive and unhealthful. Cooking is a part of my physical self care.
My slow cooker is becoming my best friend. Lately I have been using my Instant Pot more on slow cooker mode than as a pressure cooker. I had hoped the pressure cooker would reduce my cooking times on busy nights, but I find it falls short of those expectations. The time it takes for the pot to come up to pressure and then depressurize adds far too long of a wait to the seemingly shorter amount of time it takes for the food to actually cook. When I have rehearsal, I put that sucker on slow cook mode. Dinner is ready when I come home.
I wasn't expecting to find a literary inspiration for my slow cooker, but my most recent read gave me some ideas. I read Under A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. It is based on the true story of Pino Lella, an Italian boy during World War II who at 17 was escorting Jews through the Alps to help them escape to Switzerland and then joined the army at 18 and used his connections as a driver to a prominent Nazi general to spy for the resistance.
I did not expect to find inspiration for slow-cooker-friendly foods in a book about Italy in World War II, but I had a few surprises. Like many of the books I have read recently, there were few specific dishes mentioned in the story. At one point Pino stays in a monastery where the brother who does the cooking is an excellent cook. Specific dishes were rarely mentioned other than a chicken stew and fresh bread. Pino's love interest often cooks for him, but the dishes she makes seem basic (although extravagant for wartime).
When I read That Month in Tuscany, I used the region to inspire me. Under a Scarlet Sky takes place in Milan and the surrounding region (the Alps and the lakes). Food in this area tends to be heavier than the food of Tuscany and also a bit more cosmopolitan. Milan is a major business and cultural center. It is closer to the norther borders of Austria and Switzerland and takes on some of those food influences. Rice and polenta often replace pasta in this region. Veal "milanese" seems to be an Italian take on Austrian weinerschnitzel. Stewed dishes like osso bucco (slow-cooked veal shank) are common here. To the south of Lombary is Emilia-Romagna, home of Bologna and it's famous ragu`.
Slow cooked dishes like pasta bolognese or osso bucco are perfect for the slow cooker, although they aren't always well received at my house. The tough cuts of meat do best with this kind of cooking, but this doesn't make Sir Pickypants too happy. I give him credit for being far less picky than he used to be. He tries new flavors and recipes more often. He also doesn't complain about an upset stomach every time there is even a slight suspicion that one of his formerly forbidden foods touched his plate
That doesn't mean he takes much pleasure in eating some of them. He may eat a hamburger and even a piece of beef tenderloin at a steakhouse, but he freaks out at the sight of bones, fat, and connective tissue. When I cook one of these cuts, I have to make sure I cook it well enough to dissolve as much of these offending bits as possible and carefully excise anything that might possibly remain after cooking. I do what I can to make it palatable and cook a lot of side dishes. He eats it. His only other choices are to cook himself or order takeout. He doesn't want to do the former and he is too kind to offend me by doing the latter. He may be picky, but he's a good man. Even if he doesn't like the food, he's going to eat it to make me happy. He appreciates the effort even when he complains.
So I love pork and he doesn't. (He's Jewish, so he has an excuse for that one.) Unfortunately pork is a great meat for the slow cooker. I recently tried cooking some thick pastured pork chops in red wine (inspired, but not exactly copied from Thyme for Cooking), carefully removing as much fat as possible before cooking, and slicing the cooked meat off the bones before serving. I wanted to work with an even more slow-cooker-friendly pork. The obvious cut for the slow cooker is pork shoulder, but a typical shoulder or butt roast is about 5 pounds. That's way more meat than I need for just two people. Leaner cuts can dry out in the slow cooker (loins and tenderloins do well in pressure cook mode though if you have time). I decided to try using hocks.
I cooked hocks once before and they were delicious. I decided in honor of the cuisine of northern Italy I would cook them in a ragu`and served it over polenta. I took my inspiration from two of my previous recipes. The first was my recipe for lamb shanks. The second was my pork shoulder ragu` which I also served over polenta. Once the hocks were cooked, I blended the vegetables into a sauce and removed the fat , and pulled the meat from the bones and chopped it up. This made a uniform sauce wihtout too many scary parts in the meat and without the chunks of mushy vegetables I hate. I cooked the hocks for eight hours, but in the future I might let them cook an hour or two more. I wanted them to be shredded, but they didn't pull apart so easily. I had to use a knife.
My camera battery was dead and I didn't have time to take a good photo with the light box and it was too late for natural light. You get a photo taken on the stove top with the phone.
Instant Pot Slow Cooker Pork Hock Ragu`
- 2 fresh pork hocks
- 1 Tbl olive oil
- 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
- 2-4 carrots, finely diced (Quantity depends on size of carrots. Mine were small.)
- 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 1 cup strong red wine
- 2 bay leaves
Mix together the wine and tomatoes. Place the hocks on top of the vegetables and cover with the tomato-wine mixture. Add the bay leaves. Put lid on the pot and cook on slow cook mode for 8-10 hours.
At the end of the cooking, pull the hocks from the pot and set aside. Remove the bay leaves and discard. Optional Step: Blend the sauce to a smooth consistency with a stick blender or blend it in batches in a food processor. Chop or shred the meat and return it to the sauce.
Serve with pasta or polenta.