Pizza & Calzone Dough

April 14, 2009

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.
~Yogi Berra

Pizza has a lengthy and storied career despite its lack of a precise birthplace or fixed home of origin…an eternal, jiving gypsy of foods.

Tracing the history of pizza can prove tortuous. Any number of cultures or peoples who mastered the art of heating a mixture of flour and water on a stone could rightly stake claim to inventing these sumptuous edible tables. I will offer an abbreviated, anecdotal (far from academic) version. Chronologically precise? Doubtfully.

Evidence of flat breads have been found at prehistoric archeological digs. Breads we now call focaccia may date back as far as the ancient Etruscans. Focaccia literally means “flat bread,” from the Latin root focacius, meaning hearth.

Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Pharaoh’s birthday with a flat bread seasoned with herbs; and early historians such as Herodotus, described centuries old Babylonian recipes that bear resemblances to contemporary pizza crust. The ancient Greeks baked round flat breads annointed with oil, herbs, spices and dates which they called plankous or plankuntos. During lengthy marches, soldiers of the Persian king Darius the Great were known to bake a form of flat bread covered with cheese and dates upon their shields. In the epic Aeneid, the classical Roman poet Virgil alluded to the practice of using bread as an edible platter for other foods: “…we devour the plates on which we fed.”

So, a loose thread has developed that pizza gradually evolved from the ancient flatbreads relished by varying cultures in the Mediterranean rim. However, little debate exists that Italy took pizza to today’s level.

Pizza adopted its more current form in pre-Renaissance Naples, where impoverished peasants used limited ingredients (wheat flour, olive oil, lard, cheese and natural herbs) to make a seasoned, garnished flat bread. Later, tomatoes were brought to Europe from Peru and Mexico of the New World. Tomatoes were originally believed to be toxic; fortunately, the poorer denizens of Naples mustered the courage to add this once strictly ornamental pomidori to the crusty dough, creating the first basic tomato pizza.

In the late 18th century, Naples bustled and street vendors bought pizzas from small stands and sold them in slices from lidded metal boxes or narrow boards. A pizza delivered to King Ferninando I and Queen Maria Carolina was said to be so well received that the king had a red tiled pizza oven built at the royal palace.

In 1889, King Umberto I of Italy, and his wife, Queen Margherita were touring Naples. They asked to sample the fare of the most celebrated of the current pizzaiolis, Raffaele Esposito, even though partaking of such peasant fare was thought unseemly for royalty. Not wishing to disappoint, he prepared several pizzas, one of which was patriotically dressed with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes (the tricolors of the Italian flag)…dedicated to the Queen and coined “Pizza Margherita.”

Pizza migrated to America with Italians in the latter half of the 19th century, but did not achieve broad notoriety until after World War II, when servicemen stationed overseas returned to the states craving these newly discovered exotic pies.

The actual word “pizza” may be a derivative of the Latin word picea, a word which Romans used to describe the blackening of bread in an oven. Others assert that the word pizza is rooted in an Old Italian word meaning “a point,” which in turn became the Italian word pizzicare, which means “to pinch or pluck.”

Do not be deluded into thinking that pizza is some complicated dish unworthy of your efforts or too banal for your guests. You can make divine homemade pizzas with little outlay of time or capital.  All that is needed is to craft dough (flour, water, yeast, salt and honey) watch the ball rise, lightly scatter (even underload) with toppings, slide into a very hot oven with a paddle onto an already well-heated stone or steel and cook briefly.  You can riff on classics far and wide too.

Pizza is not only sublimely delicious — strewn with a small bevy of fresh ingredients, it is a visual feast.

PIZZA DOUGH

Extra virgin olive oil to coat bowl

1 C warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast packet
1 T organic honey

3+ C all purpose flour
1 t sea salt
3 T extra virgin olive oil

Pour warm water into small bowl; stir in yeast and honey until it dissolves. Let stand until yeast activates and forms foam or bubbles on the surface, about 5 minutes.

Rub large bowl lightly with olive oil. Mix flour and salt in stand up, heavy duty mixer equipped with flat paddle. Add yeast mixture, flour, salt and olive oil; mix on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Refit mixer with dough hook and process at medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic—or transfer to lightly floured surface and knead dough by hand until smooth. Kneading helps develop strength and elasticity in the dough. During this step, add more flour by tablespoonfuls if dough is too sticky. Work dough with hands into a smooth ball.

Transfer to large oiled bowl, turning dough until fully coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then a dishtowel and let dough rise in warm draft free area until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes for quick rising yeast and 1 1/2 hours for regular yeast. Punch down dough and work with hands into a smooth ball. Cut and divide into two rounded equal balls and let rest, sometimes overnight.

Place dough on well floured board or large work surface and roll out, starting in center and working outward toward edges but not rolling over them. Roll the dough to roughly 12 inches in diameter, but always feel free to create any shape to your liking or whim. Transfer to a pizza paddle which is either covered in cornmeal or heavily floured so it can slide off easily into the oven. Lightly brush with olive oil. Then add the toppings, which were chopped, cut, prepared and/or cooked in advance.

A word to the wise—do not overburden pizzas with toppings; rather, try to maintain balance and integrity, always allowing the crust to play a central role in the tasting theater. Too often pizzas are heavily laden with a plethora of ingredients that bury the crust and offer little to the savory character of these rustic delights. So, please use a light hand and err on the side of less vs. more.

With calzone, follow the dough procedure described above; but, once rolled out add toppings only to half of the dough circle, leaving a 1″ border around the half circle. Moisten the edge with water and fold the uncovered side over the filled half. Press the edges of the dough together to seal. Calzones usually take a couple minutes longer to cook. Lightly brush the top with olive oil right after the calzone is removed from the oven.

On cooking pizza: The ideal environment is directly on the tile floor of an intensely hot wood fired or stone oven. As most home kitchens are accoutered with a simple gas or electric oven, we have to accomodate. So, either use a thick, heavy pizza stone or place a layer of unglazed ceramic tiles in the bottom rack of the oven. Crank up the dial to 500 F for a sufficient time to assure that both the stone and oven are fiercely hot.

Gently shake the paddle attired with the already topped dough to make sure the pizza is loose enough to slide onto the hot stone. With a flip of the wrist, slowly slide the pizza from the paddle onto the stone and cook until slightly browned and crisp, about 10-12 minutes. Once removed, immediately grate fresh parmiggiano-reggiano on top. Slice and serve.

No need to worry, readers. Pizzas are a revered food at this table, so topping recipes will follow on the next post and later throughout the blog.

Pourboire: Some fine pizza crafters suggest that once the early kneading is complete, and the dough is divided, you should turn out each piece on a floured surface, folding and kneading each about four times until it forms a smooth ball. Then, set each ball in a lidded glass or plastic bin large enough to allow it to double in size. Settle a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough, then cover with the lid. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours before shaping and baking. This prolonged fermentation not only develops the dough’s structure, it also enables starches to transform into sapid sugars—resulting in a svelte, airier crust.

I thought coq au vin was love in a lorry.
~Victoria Wood

Coq au vin (“rooster in wine”) is a fancy name for a rustic ragout of rooster (now chicken) slowly simmered in wine with lardons, mushrooms, tomatoes and garlic. This dish, which conjures up images of French farmscapes, has an aromatic omnipresence and offers a symphony of harmonized flavors from the braising process. From a traditionally rural land, a country classic that has truly stood the test of time.

COQ AU VIN

12 white pearl onions or cippolini onions
1/2 C chicken broth
Sea salt
1 bay leaf

6 thick slices pancetta or bacon, cut into 1″ x 1/4″ lardons

3 C fresh mushrooms, quartered
2 T butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 T unsalted butter, softened
3 T all purpose flour

3 lbs organic, free range chicken parts (preferably leg/thigh quarters), well dried
3 T butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C brandy

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2-3 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed, finely minced and smashed again to a paste

3-4 C Burgundy, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel or Chianti wine
1-2 cups chicken broth
5 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 3 or 4 large slices
1 can San Marzano tomatoes, loosely drained and chopped
2-3 T brandy
Fresh parsley or tarragon, chopped

Bacon
In a large, heavy deep skillet or Dutch oven, fry the cut bacon over medium heat until crisp. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Set aside, reserving about 1-2 tablespoons fat in the pan.

Onions
Drop onions into a sauce pan of boiling water for no more than 1 minute. Drain and remove. Cut off the root and stem ends, keeping the onion layers intact. Slip off the skins with your fingers. Place the onions in the pan covered halfway with the broth and add bay leaf. Cover the pan and simmer very slowly until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Mushrooms
Place heavy skillet with butter and oil over medium high heat. When the butter is well heated, add the mushrooms and toss well so they absorb the butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and continue tossing until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.

Beurre Manié
With your fingers, combine butter and flour. Set aside.

Salt and pepper the chicken pieces. In the heavy, deep skillet or Dutch oven with the bacon fat, add butter and olive oil over medium high heat. When it is lively hot, but not smoking, lay in the chicken skin side down. In batches and without crowding the pan, cook until nicely browned, about 4-5 minutes per side. After removing, drizzle the skillet with brandy and flambé by igniting the fumes. Allow to sit until flames die down and burn out in pan. Set chicken aside in a casserole dish, loosely tented with aluminum foil.

Add chicken, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, carrot, and tomatoes to the skillet or Dutch oven. Pour in wine and adequate stock to cover the ingredients. Cover and simmer slowly until chicken is tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Remove the chicken to a dish or casserole, and tent loosely with foil. Also remove bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Raise heat, fortify sauce with 2-3 tablespoons brandy and boil down rapidly—-tasting and adding any necessary seasoning—until sauce just begins to lightly thicken. Remove from heat and little by little whisk in beurre manié to thicken to the point until the sauce becomes glossy and coats a spoon well. Return the chicken to pan along with the braised onions, lardons and mushrooms. Simmer a couple of minutes to blend the flavors and baste the chicken.

Top with parsley or tarragon and serve with buttered artisanal noodles, mashed potatoes/turnips or rice pilaf, a favored seaonal green and a special red Burgundy or pinot noir.

Pourboire: Please heed Julia Child’s mantra about browning —
(1) The meat should be thoroughly dried
(2) The oil in the pan should be quite hot
(3) Do not crowd the meat in the pan

Aïoli epitomizes the heat, the power, and the joy of the Provençal sun, but it has another virtue—it drives away flies.
~Frédéric Mistral

ARTICHOKES WITH AIOLI & CHIPOTLE AIOLI

Globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus) are perennial thistles with origins in the Mediterranean, probably North Africa or Sicily. After the plant travelled throughout Europe, Spanish settlers brought artichokes to what is now California in the 1600’s—but they were not widely grown there until the first quarter of the 20th century. Castroville, California, became artichoke famous on a national scale when Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen in 1948.

The edible portions of the plant are fleshy lower portions of the leaves (bracts) and the base or receptacle, known as the heart. The mass of florets in the center of the bud is called the choke.

Artichokes contain a compound called cynarin, which stimulates taste bud receptors enhancing even the simplest of flavors. They are deceptively healthy—a fertile source of silymarin, an antioxidant traditionally used in many cultures to treat liver, gallbladder and digestive disorders. They also provide other nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, folic acid as well as carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Artichokes are virtually fat free.

Choose globes that are dark green, heavy, and have tightly knit leaves. Dry looking globes that appear to be turning brown and are too open are past their prime.

ARTICHOKES

1 artichoke
1 fresh lemon, quartered and seeded
12 black peppercorns
2 t salt
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Lay the artichoke on its side on a cutting board; using a large chef’s knife, cut away the entire top quarter in one slice. Cut off the stem at the bottom, so the artichoke will stand upright in the serving dish. Cut off the very bottom of the stem, peel it and and retain. Pull off the tough bottom leaves. Then, using scissors, cut away the thorny end of each remaining leaf. I actually prefer leaving the leaf ends intact as it seems more visually pleasing. You just need to care to avoid being pricked throughout your dining experience.

Fill pasta pot halfway with water, and and add lemon, peppercorns, salt, bay leaves, thyme and garlic. Bring to a boil and then place the artichoke directly in water. Reduce the heat to a lively simmer and cook until a large leaf easily pulls away, about 35 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain through a colander.

(You may also steam the artichoke in a basket with 2 inches or so of water in the pot.)

Serve hot, at room temperature or cold with drawn peppered butter, aïolis, or mayonnaise. Use your teeth to scrape the flesh from the bottom of each leaf. Either use a specially desiged artichoke plate or have a bowl on the side for the discarded leaves. Do not forget that the leaves closest to the heart of the choke are very tender. Once you reach the last flimsy leaves that cover the choke and heart in the middle, cut them away with a circular motion with a spoon or knife. Discard both the leaves and the fuzzy choke underneath, then slice up that succulent heart and stem.

AIOLI

Prepare aïoli (see Aïoli, Aïoli, Aïoli post)

CHIPOTLE AIOLI

Basic aïoli recipe
1 small can of chipotle chilies in adobo, partially drained and finely minced
1/2 fresh lime
Pinch of dried cumin
Handful of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

To the basic aïoli recipe, add finely minced chipotles and some of the adobe to taste; add the cumin, a squeeze of fresh lime and cilantro. Mix well.

Moules Marinières

April 11, 2009

Mussels, a personal love, have been a food source for tens of thousands of years. They encapsulate the type of food that I adore: simple, savory, and without pretense.

In ancient Greece, electoral votes were cast by scratching the names of candidates inside mussel shells.

Centuries later, in one of the earliest (14th century) French cookbook transcripts, Le Viander de Taillevent, a mussel recipe appears—with mint of all things. The reknowned Taillevent rose from meager beginnings as a young kitchen hand by the common name of Guillaume Tirel to become the heralded master chef for the king of France, Charles V (“the Wise”). More than a quincentennial later, Taillevent’s name graced a famous Parisian restaurant which opened shortly after the close of World War II.

Mussels are bivalves of the marine family Mytilidae, most of which live on exposed shores in intertidal zones. The external shell is composed of two hinged halves (valves) joined together by a ligament, and closed by robust internal muscles. They have tough, elastic byssal threads—their notorius “beards.”

On storage: do not bring home mussels in a closed plastic bag and directly store them in the refrigerator. In that sealed bag, they will suffocate and die. So, either put them on the refrigerator shelf with the bag open or transfer them to a large glass bowl and cover them with a damp cotton cloth.

MOULES MARINIERES

2 lbs fresh mussels

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 t sea salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
3 shallots, peeled and finely minced
2 t dried thyme
2 C white wine (slightly sweet or a touch fruity)

1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C fresh tarragon, chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

Start with butter then combine salt, garlic, shallots, thyme, and wine in large deep heavy skillet. Sweat over low heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add bay leaf and mussels with a generous sprinkling of pepper, then cover. Cook just until shells open, about 3 to 4 minutes. Do not overcook.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and sprinkle with tarragon and more pepper.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette slices and a chilled white or rosé.

Life, Chicken & Potatoes

April 10, 2009

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.
~Mae West

Food and friends, past and present, in chronology.

pho-bi-a, n. a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it. [1780-1790; extracted from nouns ending in -PHOBIA]

My amigo soulmate of years ago, Joe, died suddenly and unexpectedly at a much too young age. It was a spirit-shattering, life-bending, scarring tragedy for all of us who adored him. An eternal gut punch. So many things sadly unsaid and experiences lost.

Before his untimely exit, Joe schooled me on the perserverance and confidence needed to grill poultry. Until I studied him manning the ‘que, I suffered from that common, yet unfounded, psychic malady—fear of burned chicken. I listened and watched intently as he fostered patience, steadiness, forbearance and fearlessness at the grill.

A few learned tips: (1) have a somewhat gentle, but not waning, fire (2) stoically resist the natural temptation of repetitive turning, moving, pressing the chicken as this releases those ambrosial juices—potentially causing wildfires and also drying the bird; (3) open the bottom vents on the barbeque, but keep any top or side vents closed while cooking; (4) keep the lid on the kettle as much as possible as the heat and grilling smoke which is “basting” your fowl will simply evaporate into thin air; (5) somewhat contrary to (4), stand sentry—keep an occasional eye on the meat to assure no raging bonfires have developed; (6) do not apply glazes or sauces that have a sugar base until the very end of the cooking process, and paint on in layers, creating tiers of caramelized flavors. (Also, see the post On Grilling).

Since his euphemistic passing, many have unknowingly reaped the benefits of Joe’s tutelage.

GRILLED CHICKEN

Citrus glaze:
1/2 C fresh lime juice
1 1/2 C fresh orange juice
1/4 C soy sauce
1/2 C honey

In a small heavy saucepan, boil ingredients until reduced to 1 cup. Set aside.

Marinade:
1/2 C fresh lime juice
1/2 C fresh orange juice
3 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and minced finely
1/3 C fresh oregano, chopped
1/3 C fresh cilantro, chopped
3 fresh jalapeños, stemmed and diced
2 t dried red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 C extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together first ingredients until well mixed. Then, slowly drizzle in olive oil in a narrow stream while whisking vigorously. Set aside.

Chicken:
Fresh, organic, free range chicken (either leg thigh quarters or whole chicken cut into 8 pieces)
Several sprigs of rosemary
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Place chicken in large flat dish and pour marinade over, turning to coat liberally. A large ziploc bag works well too. Cover, refrigerate and let chicken marinade, turning occasionally for a few hours or even overnight. Bring to room temperature in marinade before grilling. Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade.

Prepare grill to medium (to medium high) heat. Before placing the chicken on the grill, arrange some rosemary sprigs on the edges of the fire. Grill chicken until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Brush thoroughly with glaze and grill 2-5 minutes longer. Remove and transfer to platter.

POTATO SALAD CHEZ ARLENE

My dear friend Arlene lives in the country on a horse farm…a serene, pastoral setting with verdant pastures, specked with ponds and crisscrossed with wooden fences. Her home is perched at the summit of an otherwise flat county, sprawling with almost nothing but windows facing western skies reminiscent of Constable canvasses—blue sunrises, fierce orange, light grey and cobalt sunsets, potent anvil-head storms rolling in from the plains bearing who knows what, puffy white clouds dotting the tranquil sky, lunar bathings. All is centered around these immaculate horse stables, housing tmagnificent, neatly groomed, finely pedigreed beasts who do this ballet called dressage.

A wing of the home is devoted to music. It has soothing curved ceilings, an audiophile’s dream of a sound system with speakers larger than a grown man, ergonomic chairs—a room lined with exalted fine art, books, CDs and, of course, brimming with music. Listening to Mahler’s No. 6 there may well best a symphony hall. A night at Arlene’s is spent cooking, eating, imbibing, and retiring to the Music Room, discussing the world’s feats and woes well into the morning hours.

Arlene and I really met during dark moments in both of our lives. She coddled and helped to heal me. Along the way, she introduced to me to an unparalleled potato salad.

3 lbs red potatoes
6 organic, free range eggs

1 large bunch fresh radishes, rinsed, scrubbed and thinly sliced
2 small bunches green onions, rinsed and sliced, 2″ of tops trimmed off

1 C mayonaisse, either homemade (see Mayonaisse post) or Hellman’s prepared
1/2 C dijon mustard
3 T balsamic vinegar
1/2 C capers

Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

Place potatoes into a large heavy bottomed pot. Cover with cold water and place over high heat. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat and remove lid. Gently simmer until potatoes are fork tender. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then promptly drain and dry thoroughly. Slice potatoes, but not overly thin.

Place eggs in a heavy large saucepan. Cover with cold water, cover with lid and place over high heat. At the first serious boil, remove the pan from heat and let stand 14 minutes, still covered. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then remove and dry. Thinly slice the boiled eggs.

In a large bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, mustard and balsamic vinegar to taste; then add the potatoes, radishes, green onions, boiled eggs and capers. Roll up your sleeves and mix well with both hands (or employ a friend). Season with salt and pepper early on so you can taste to your liking. You may need to add more mayonnaise and mustard to reach the right moisture level. As with all salads, the ingredients should be nicely coated, but not swimming or soggy.

Fried Bird

April 8, 2009

The light delectable tapas behind us, I felt the urge to offer some heartier fare.

Frying food, including chicken, is both an antiquated and timeless cooking method…going back to ancient cultures such as Egypt, Rome and Asia, even medieval Europe. For instance, Apicius mentions sweet and savory fritters in his classic Roman cooking text even though he does not detail the cooking methodology. This widespread early birth of fried food is no surprise, as dredging foods with flour and spices then frying tenderizes and enhances flavor.

In the 19th century, fried chicken emerged as a deeply rooted staple in the American South with many claiming that Scottish immigrants brought their tradition of deep fat frying chicken to these states. At the same time, the efficient cooking process was well adapted to the plantation life of African-American slaves, who were sometimes allowed to raise chickens…introducing seasonings and spices that were earlier absent in Scottish cuisine.

Whatever the origin, fried chicken often provokes strong emotions and opinions about technique.

Although not crucial, this recipe entails soaking the fowl in a brining solution before beginning the actual cooking process. Briefly (and inadequately), brining alters cellular structure so that more water than usual is retained while the meat is denatured. As the meat cooks, the heated proteins will begin to reduce tightly and exude juice at a lower rate, producing a more tender piece of meat. We hope.

When brining, be sure to use the appropriate container, such as glass or plastic. Aluminum is not a good choice because the salted water and enzymes in the meat combine, creating a chemical reaction with the aluminum which adversely affects flavor.

FRIED CHICKEN

1 free range, organic fryer chicken

Brine solution:
3/4 C honey
12 whole peppercorns
6 sprigs thyme
6 sprigs rosemary
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3/4 C lemon juice
1 part sea salt to 8 parts cold water, enough to cover chicken

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 C all purpose flour
2 T garlic powder
2 T onion powder
2 T sweet paprika
2 t cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper

1 quart buttermilk
2 T hot chili sauce (Sriracha)

Peanut oil
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bunch fresh sage
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Prepare the brine solution by combining all ingredients and stirring well in a large heavy pot; bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then cool completely. In a large bowl or container, cover the chicken entirely with the cooled brine solution. Refrigerate, covered, for 4 to 8 hours. Rinse and pat dry. Cut into eight pieces and season with salt and pepper.

In a large shallow platter, mix the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and cayenne until well blended and then season with pepper. In another platter, combine the buttermilk and hot sauce with a small whisk.

Drain the chicken and pat it dry. Dredge the pieces, a few at a time, in the flour mixture, then dip them into the buttermilk; dredge them again in the seasoned flour. Set aside and let the chicken rest while you prepare the oil. If possible, let stand 1 hour on parchement paper.

Add about 3 inches of peanut oil to a large deep heavy pot. Add the thyme, rosemary, sage, and garlic to the cool oil and heat over medium-high heat until the oil registers 340 to 350 F. The herbs and garlic will perfume the oil with their flavor as the oil comes up to temperature. Skim the fried herbs out of the oil and set aside. Remove garlic and discard. Do not allow the garlic to burn.

Working in batches, carefully add the chicken pieces 3 or 4 at a time. Fry, turning the pieces once, until golden brown and cooked through, about 12 minutes for dark meat and 8 minutes for breasts. When the chicken is done, remove from pan and allow to drain on paper towels. Season some with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces. When serving scatter the reserved fried herbs over the top. Serve hot or room temperature.

Serve with mashed potatoes (see Smashed Potatoes post) and green beans with finely diced garlic.

…shellfish are the prime cause of the decline of morals and the adaptation of an extravagant lifestyle.
~Pliny the Elder

Apparently, the tapas topic has proven as addictive as the food (and wine) itself. So, bear with my obsession for one more recipe in this recent spate. No doubt more tapas recipes will appear, but a little later down the line.

These delicate shell beasts that have traditionally graced plates in tapas bars everywhere are as simple to prepare as they are pleasing to the eye and palate…and I love the crunch of those tails.

GARLIC SHRIMP (GAMBAS AL AJILLO)

1 lb large shrimp, peeled with tails left intact (16-20 count)
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 t Spanish paprika (pimentón)
1 T dried chili pepper
2 T cognac or brandy
Sea salt

Chopped fresh parsley

In a heavy sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and sauté another 1 to 2 minutes. Do not burn.

Add the shrimp, red pepper and paprika. Stir well, then sauté, stirring briskly until the shrimp turn pink and curl – about 3 to 4 minutes total, turning once. Pour in the brandy and cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add a pinch or two of salt and sprinkle lightly with parsley.

Serve with sliced toasted or grilled bread.

Now that the tapas ramble is behind us, I can devote more space to these Spanish delights. I humbly suggest that you dine al fresco preferably using your fingers and barefoot—it is the most delectable way to sup. Then again, a crowded congenial tapas bar echoing with lively discourse may be the spot. Either way, by all means do not forget tapas’ adored playmates, wine and sherry.

OLIVES WITH ORANGES & GARLIC

3 fresh oranges
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
3 T sherry vinegar
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig rosemary
2 pinches sea salt
2/3 lbs high quality cured olives

Zest one half of each orange into a bowl. Cut the oranges in half crosswise, and juice them. Mix the orange zest, orange, juice, smashed garlic, olive oil, sherry vinegar, thyme, rosemary, salt and olives in the bowl until evenly coated. Marinate overnight, and preferably for a few days so the flavors marry fully.

EGGS WITH CHORIZO & POTATOES

3 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Spanish chorizo sausages, cut into 1/2″ cubes
6 large, organic, free range eggs, room temperature

Baguette or rustic artisanal bread, sliced

Heat 3 T of olive oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden brown, about 1 minute. Add the potatoes and thyme sprigs, cook stirring until slightly brown, about 4-5 minutes. Add a pinch or two of sea salt, to taste. Add the chorizo to the pan and continue to saute until slightly brown, about 2 minutes.

In another sauté pan, heat the remaining olive oil over medium high heat. Carefully slide the eggs, two by two, into the pan and fry until sunny side up. Salt and pepper lightly. Spread the potatoes and chorizo on a plater and top with fried eggs.

Serve with grilled bread.

AVOCADO TOAST (TOSTADA DE AGUACATE)

Baguette or rustic artisanal bread, sliced
Aïoli (garlic mayonnaise)—see Aïoli post, 01.25.09
Serrano ham, thinly sliced
1 fresh ripe avocado, seeded and peeled and sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Toast bread on both sides, preferably on a charcoal grill. Thinly spread aïoli onto each toast. Add an slice of serrano ham and top with a slice or two of avocado. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil over the avocado.

OCTOPUS (PULPO GALLEGO)

1 1/2 lbs fresh octopus, cleaned with head removed
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
4 fresh thyme sprigs
10 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
Sea salt

4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed and rinsed
Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle
Spanish paprika (pimentón)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place octopus, onion, thyme, bay leaves and peppercorns in large heavy pot of boiling water and cook until soft enough to eat. This usually takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from water, drain and allow to cool. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Slice into rounds about 1/2″ thick.

Rinse potatoes and clean with a vegetable brush. Fill a medium size pot with water, salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until a fork pierces the potatoes easily. Remove from heat and place under cold running water in a colander. Allow to cool, then peel the potatoes. Slice into rounds approximately 1/3″ thick.

Arrange potato slices overlapping on a serving platter. Place octopus on top. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with sweet paprika, salt and pepper to taste.

Pourboire: even better, after cooking the octopus for about half of the time in water, remove, brush with olive oil and grill on the barbeque over medium heat for several minutes on each side before slicing and arranging with the potatoes.

ROASTED PEPPERS, ONIONS AND SHERRY VINEGAR

4 medium red peppers
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and medium thick sliced
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly
1/4 C white wine
3 T sherry vinegar
Sea salt
Sprigs of rosemary, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 F

Brush the peppers and onions with olive oil, then roast, turning occasionally until browned, about 30 minutes. Remove and allow peppers too cool. Peel, seed and cut peppers into narrow strips. Separate onions into rings.

Heat the remaining oil in a heavy sauté pan and cook garlic until brown. Do not burn the garlic. Add the peppers, onions, and white wine to the garlic and oil. Cover the pan, cook on low heat until sauce thickens, about 25-30 minutes. Add the sherry vinegar and salt.

Serve hot, room temp or chilled over grilled bread.

POTATO OMELET (TORTILLA DE PATATAS)

1 C extra virgin olive oil
1 lb russet potatoes, peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
2 t sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced
8 organic, free range eggs

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a heavy sauté pan. Once the oil is hot enough, add the potatoes and poach over medium heat until they are lightly browned and crisp. Remove the potates from the pan with a slotted spoon, cool to room temperature and season with a couple of pinches of salt. Reserve the oil in the pan.

Heat the reserved cooking oil, add the onions and cook over medium heat until slightly browned but not burned. As with the potatoes, strain, cool to room temperature and reserve the cooked onions and oil.

Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk. Add the potatoes and onions, some salt and ground pepper and stir until blended together. Add 3 tablespoons of the reserved oil to an 8″ non stick saute pan over medium heat. When the pan is heated, add the egg mixture. Shake the pan several times to bring the eggs together. Then cook for several minutes unto the edges are cooked but the center is not yet set. Invert onto a plate, then return to the pan, raw side down, cooking for another minute or so. Slide onto platter, slice and serve immediately.

Tapeo is like a baroque, sybaritic game, as it pleases the five senses by means of multifarious smells, friendly pats on the back, the sight and beauty of the streets. It induces states of inspiration and delight, it gives rise to witty banter on trivial topics and the interchange of snippets of juicy gossip.
~Alicia Rio

Tapa, the exquisite Spanish finger food, derived its name from the verb tapar, meaning “to cover.” From this widely accepted assumption, the stories of the origins of tapas are many and disparate.

One legend suggests that the Spanish monarch Alfonso X “El Sabio,” who reigned in the 13th century, had fallen ill. He was advised to take small snacks between meals with some wine. Once recovered and convinced of the healing properties of this lifestyle, the king decreed that all inns must provide small delectable morsels when serving wine to patrons. He reasoned this avoided excess intoxication and intestinal problems caused by imbibing on an empty stomach.

To comply with the king’s edict, botillerias (bottle shops) and tabernas (taverns) apparently began cropping up around Spain. They served glasses or jars of wine covered with a slice of cured ham or cheese to block fruit flies from falling into the wine and also to assure the booze fell on a full belly.

Another version offered is that farm hands needed to consume smaller amounts of food during the work day so they could perservere until the main dinner was served—a meal so hearty that a siesta was often needed for digestion.

Tapas are not so much a type of food as they are a Spanish way of eating and socializing in a convivial bar atmosphere…even a way of living. Tapas venues, called tasca, are not restaurants in a formal sense, but exuberant and lively bars. They vary regionally based upon available foodstuffs and gastronomic preferences. Most historians posit that tapas was born in Andalusia, Spain’s second largest and most southern region, and not surprisingly the closest to North Africa.

Tapas, served hot and cold, are generally classified according to how they are eaten. Cosas de picar (meaning “things to nibble”) basically refer to finger food, the traditional being the quintessntial olive. If utensils like banderillas (decorated toothpicks) are used, the tapas are known as pinchos. Cazuelas (little dishes) are tapas that are lightly bathed in sauce. Whichever you choose from the wide array of tapas—from olives to eggs to hams to shellfish to peppers to potatoes, and so on—you are in for a regal treat.

TOMATO TOAST WITH SERRANO HAM

4 slices baguette or other rustic artisanal bread
2 ripe tomatoes, cut in half
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
4 paper thin slices of serrano ham (jamón serrano)

Without grating the skin, rub the open face, fleshy side of the tomatoes on a grater into a bowl. Add 3 T olive oil to the grated tomatoes. Season with salt and mix. Lightly brush or drizzle the bread with some olive oil, then toast the bread on both sides in the broiler or better yet on a barbeque grill. Spoon a small layer of the tomato mixture over the slices of the toast, evenly. Place a slice of serrano on each toast, then drizzle with a small trace of olive oil. Serve.

More tapas to follow on the next post.

Serrano hams (jamón serrano) are literally “mountain hams” which are a dry-cured Spanish delicacy that has attained national treasure status. The pigs feed on grass, fruit and, most importantly, acorns that fall every autumn from holm and cork oaks. This gives their meat a unique nutty flavor.

The hams are cured from 18-24 months in drying sheds (secaderos) which are usually found at higher elevations where the atmosphere is cooler and drier. It is generally considered to have a deeper flavor and firmer texture than its close cousin, Italian prosciutto.

Salade Niçoise

April 3, 2009

The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palm, the gold beads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers—all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.
~Lawrence Durrell

While in mind, has anyone relished Durrell’s acclaimed tetralogy of novels entitled The Alexandria Quartet: Justin, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea? At least savor one, as he so fervently describes the people, lands and mystery of the Mediterranean basin.

Salade niçoise is a classic Provençal one plate meal brimming with valuable nutrients—the tuna and anchovies provide protein and are a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids; the olives and olive oil supply monounsaturated fat; the eggs provide protein and vitamins; the potatoes provide energy rich carbohydrates, along with potassium and fiber; and the remaining vegetables add more fiber and a healthy dose of phytochemicals and antioxidants.

To me, the summertime flavors far exceed any health value. But, to each his own.

Salade Niçoise

2 T sherry vinegar
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1-1 1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste

1 large head Boston lettuce leaves, washed and dried
1 lb green beans (preferably haricots verts)
1 1/2 shallots, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ripe red tomatoes (preferably heirloom), cut into wedges
1 lb red new potatoes potatoes, scrubbed

2-3 fresh tuna fillets, thickly cut
Extra virgin olive oil
Several rosemary sprigs

6 organic, free range eggs, hard boiled, peeled and quartered
4 anchovy fillets, packed in extra virgin olive oil
1 C Niçoise olives
3 T capers
3 T minced fresh parsley and chervil

Whisking gently, combine sherry and red wine vinegars, mustard and salt in a bowl. Whisking more vigorously, slowly add olive oil to create an emulsion. Taste for seasoning with a lettuce leaf.

Prepare grill to medium high and lay the rosemary sprigs on top of coals. Brush the tuna with olive oil, and place on the grill, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and cook an additional 3 to 5 minutes, to rare to medium rare. Transfer to a platter, season with salt and pepper, and let cool to room temperature. Slice and lightly brush with vinaigrette.

Put green beans in large pot of boiling salted water. and cook until just tender and crisp, 3-4 minutes. Drain beans in colander and plunge into ice cold water to halt cooking and retain the green hue. Promptly drain on cloth or paper towel—otherwise, the beans will become soggy. Toss with the sliced shallots and some of the vinaigrette. Set aside.

Bring a medium-sized pot of salted water to a boil, and add the potatoes. Cook just until they are tender, about 15 minutes, drain and let cool. Cut into quarters and toss with some of the vinagrette.

Drain the anchovies of oil and pat dry.

Toss the lettuce leaves with a minimal amount of vinaigrette and arrange them in a large salad bowl. Toss the tomatoes with some vinaigrette. Place the potatoes in the center of the platter and arrange a mound of beans at either end. Arrange the tomatoes and tuna on the salad to please the eye. Ring the platter with the hard boiled eggs, and curl an anchovy on top of each. Scatter on olives, capers, parsley and chervil, lightly drizzle more vinaigrette over the dish and serve.

Oh, and lest we not forget — a glass of chilled, crisp white, such as a burgundy or sauvingnon blanc.

Pourboire: A briefer version would entail the use of high quality canned tuna, packed in olive oil.