Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Braised Short Ribs in Red Wine and Herbs...and recently a study in 'limitations'


Chemistry.  The bane of my existence.  Silly little sub-atomic particles that cannot be seen by the naked eye.  Electric currents that fly through these unseen microscopic atoms filled with tiny little jelly bean like things called protons and neutrons...that apparently allow me, if all things are zipping and zapping correctly, to pull together this delicious, succulent meal of...

Braised Short Ribs in Red Wine and Herbs.

I'm afraid, without my fully realizing it and without fully digesting the magnitude of all things chemistry-related, I have embarked on a "study of limitations" this school year.  Oh, yes, let me explain...  

What limitations?  The question, more aptly put, is whose limitations?  

Whose limitations?  Limitations of whom?

Mine.  After finally, ceremoniously, melodramatically, and exhaustedly coming to an end of our high school Chemistry course for Riley...

I have fully defined, outlined, and have a crystal clear reflection of my limitations of what the wonderful world of science has to offer...but apparently not so much to me.

Yeah.  My nerdy guy.

"Why?" I ask myself.  "Why did I throw myself into the murky vortex of assigning myself the Mt. Everest-esque task of teaching high school Chemistry to my son?"

Mid-life crisis?  Glutton for punishment?  A crazy idea that I need to spend more quality hours with my teen son?  Oh, good Lord...no.

I didn't dare touch any of the Math and Science courses for my daughter during high school.  "With good reason," I can just hear her smirking.  I carefully farmed out, paid for, arranged for...perfectly qualified, patient, intelligent teachers to take on this task.

I am, indeed, within that peculiar range of acutely-weighted liberal arts thinkers who panic at a restaurant if everyone has to divide up the bill among a large group and then...gasp...figure out the correct tip for the hard-working person who served all of us and deserves the correct amount. 

I am, indeed, within the range of heavily weighted liberal arts thinkers who would (sometimes) rather pay full price for an item than spend the amount of time required for me, staring at a price tag, to figure out the percent discount (correctly), subtract it from the full price (correctly), and then determine the sales cost...yes, correctly.

A study of self "limitations"...apparently where cinnamon rolls played no part...

But, as we  approached the final check off boxes for high school required science courses for our son, Chemistry kept looming on the horizon as the final science credit yet to be ticked off.

For some completely unexplained far-fetched, willy-nilly reason, I decided wouldn't it be a "hoot" if I challenged my right-brained self...by teaching the one course in high school that was "the bane of my existence".

My high school Chemistry class was nothing more than a murky blur to me.  I remember looking at that large colorful chart slung up over the chalkboard and willing it to give up its thousands of secrets in a way that would unravel  logically in my mind.

The most vivid memory that I can conjure up is the time a thermometer fell with a 'tink and a crack' onto the cold cement floor.  As we all gasped in alarm, shiny silver balls of slick Mercury spilled out onto the floor and dangerously rolled about our polished penny-loafers, threatening to poison us all if we dared reach out a curious hand.

Perhaps this decision to master 'chemistry', of all things,  was some sort of mid-life crisis?  Perhaps I needed/wanted to prove to myself that I am capable of expanding my mind and conquering areas of former weakness?  At this point...I shake my head and say, "Who knows?!"

I admire people who can master just about any area of the sciences.  I am very much attracted to men who are quirky in that nerdy but lovable way.  When a man can spend an hour discussing quantum mechanics or electron configuration but can't figure out how to sort laundry correctly if their lives depended on it...Oh, how I swoon.

I married one of them...his name is Patrick.  Smartest man I know.  He knows, however, not to touch the laundry.

So, my poor unsuspecting son (also quite liberal arts minded) and I embarked on the myriad of hiccups, restarts, and brow-furrowing labs, mole calculations, and chemical formula unravellings that define high school chemistry.

Never. Again.  We're done.  Finito.  I made it...I mean "he" made it...conclusion = #mysonissmarterthanIam

Like I said, it ended up being a "study of limitations".  Mine.

Bottom: Right: One of our many, many, many labs...chromatography!
We loved all the food related labs...

I don't mean to discredit myself...demean myself...degrade myself;  I did learn quite a bit about myself through this journey of oddity I chose recently.  I know I have strengths that are equally important to successes in this world.  But, if I can't laugh at my many mistakes and wrong turns in life...

Mostly...I confirmed (again) that I am limited in the arena of science, Chemistry to be exact (love Biology, dissections, memorization...no problem)...and will probably stay that way for a very, very, very long time.

As my head plonked hard down on the table in irrefutable relief after Riley submitted his final assignment to his online program, he patted my shoulder and told me that, "You did a pretty good job...overall."  And... that "There are just things that you are really good at and others that, well...you struggle with, Mom."

Don't worry.  We were tethered to a teacher the entire course who could step in and pick up my many vacant and muddled moments.

But,  I really wanted to attempt to master something that I saw as an area of weakness.  Could I master something I know is difficult for me?  Could I at least improve my understanding of an area that seems so elusive?

Les Canelés de Bordeaux

I did honestly gain quite a bit of newfound knowledge as we progressed through the course.  Instead of the material being totally new to me, as in high school, I had a healthy dose of determination, curiosity, bull-headedness (I am every bit a Taurus...that should explain volumes) this time around.  I wanted to succeed.  

What I didn't figure into the equation was some "soft" learning skills that my son had gained watching his mother flail her way through a difficult challenge.

He worked hard.  We worked hard.  We had to read and re-read sections until that weak light bulb began to glow brighter and brighter.  Labs sometimes took hours but in the end, the numbers were correct, the concepts understood, and the deadlines met.

He watched me struggle with a difficult quest, work hard to reach the finish, and...then sigh deeply and completely when it was all signed, sealed, and delivered.

Maybe?  Hopefully?  He will apply these events to his future struggles someday?  He possibly received a heavy dose of perseverance training that will be applied towards a difficult goal?  

Well, I certainly know that he now realizes his mother is altogether human...flawed...limited...but a hard worker nonetheless.  We were a team and certainly relied on each other's strengths and tried to counteract each other's weaknesses.  

I'll retreat from wearing any sort of scientist cap in the future.  Lesson learned...now to be applied.  I'm far better off experimenting with chemical processes in the kitchen.  

Knowing that 3 hours is enough but 3 1/2 hours is too much to gently break down the cellular structure of tough meat of short ribs in order to come out succulent and flavorful.   That I know.

And, knowing that for chemical reasons, putting canelé batter in the refrigerator for 24 hours before baking them, lets the batter rest and creates the uniform pillowy interior similar to a thick custard.
That, I can relate to.

Applied sciences.  Hands-on learning through mixing, swishing, and heating.  Why...isn't that what cooking is all about?  Perhaps...just perhaps... I am a scientist after all!

Les Canelés de Bordeaux


  1. My dear Sarah … how beautifully you told your story … juxtaposed with such rich images … ahhh … just beautiful. My mother's heart was tugged and a bit envious of your time spent together. What a beautiful story … of a mother's love … as homeschooling days come to an end … and new adventures loom on the horizon … for both of you …

    Thank you for sharing your journey with such touching beauty and artistry. You inspire.



    1. Thank you Tamera. Your latest article really landed square on some ups and downs that I go through. We think initially that motherhood lasts forever and ever. Then, we realize it is yet another of many stages in life. Your words and images are beautiful.

  2. A wonderful winter dish! So comforting and scrumptious. And your Cannelés looks dielicious....



  3. You are amazing, Sarah, and remind me of the time my mother helped me struggle through algebra when I was being home schooled. Teachers had tried, friends had tried, but she was the only one who could break it down into pieces small enough for my not-at-all-mathematically-inclined self to digest. I am still grateful and I know your son will remember your devotion to him, to these niggling problems. :-)

    1. Oh, how interesting to know that you were homeschooled for math. I, too, could have benefited from moving much slower and more thoroughly geometry concepts. Then, I flew through all languages, writing, grammar, histories, etc. No limitations, really...some of use need a bit more time for digestion!

  4. You are a food scientist :) I am sure that you did the best you could and that is all anyone of us can ever do.

    1. Thanks Loree...we did eat our fair share of marshmallows and m&ms during the labs that were food related. I'll stick to the kitchen for sure in the future.

  5. Why, exactly why, at the other end of the world, am I laughing and laughing warmly!! You know you challenge me each and every time you post . . . there is always the practical side [the ribs ARE lovely, Sarah!] and then the world of discovery and self-discovery. I so related to what you had to say today!! I have to think back . . . never had chemistry on my high school curriculum so found it hellish in first year medicine when everyone else had all the clues!! Had come second in NSW high school finals out of over 20,000 in biology: loved it ~ nearly flunked chemistry and did flunk physics and e'one who had watched me come second in the state overall the previous year went 'oh'!!! . . . OK, passed after summer exams BUT :) ! [OK also ~ methinks had discovered the opposite sex :) !] SO, I SO understand and smile . . . methinks we both know how to at this stage of our lives . . .thanks for the memory!!

    1. Now, it's you who made me giggle. You are one smart cookie Eha...with a fun-loving personality to match!

  6. I can so identify with you opening statement, "chemistry, the bane of my existence" since fighting with it in college. If someone could just have shown me what the heck a mole was...it would have made such a difference. Enjoyed how you picked the experience up this time and examined it from many angles. Good example for Riley!

    1. I sure hope my "head banging" was a good example. I can't tell you how relieved I was to finish the course. I was skipping around every time I would think of it.

  7. It's a comfort to read that I'm not alone in my inability to do math in my head. Friends often stare at me dumbfounded by how bad I am at the whole bill thing in restaurants. I can't believe you did the whole chemistry thing. The Irish would say, "fair play to you." :) Your photos here are gorgeous and the food looks amazing as always.

    1. It amazes, AMAZES me when people can run right through math equations, discounts, percentages in their heads. I have to carefully write everything out and double-check my accuracy. Yes, I did the chemistry thing...will have nightmares for awhile probably!


How wonderful to hear from new friends...