Butter is…the most delicate of foods among barbarous nations, and one which distinguishes the wealthy from the multitude at large.~Pliny the Elder

My previous topic, Languedoc-Roussillon, will be revisited promptly. But before the serious que’ing season is upon us, I have been meaning to post about herb butter. (I have yet to fully comprehend why so many await the summer season to begin grilling, as some of the most satisfying open fire cooking is to be had in cooler seasons, even ankle deep in a blanket of snow—a glowing orb, comforting much like a fireplace.) Herb butter is simply made by blending butter with herbs and spices which quickly transforms and dresses up a dish, often grilled or sautéed meat, fish or chicken.

CILANTRO LIME HERB BUTTER

8 T unsalted butter, room temperature
2 T chopped cilantro, packed
1 T lime juice, freshly squeezed
Grated zest on 1 lime
1/4 t sea salt

Mix together butter, cilantro, lime juice, and salt in a small bowl. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator.

If you save the butter for later, wrap it up in plastic wrap in the shape of a log and refrigerate until firm. To use, just unwrap and slice from the butter log and place on warm food.

HERB & LEMON BUTTER

8 T unsalted butter, room temperature
2 T minced fresh herbs (chervil, parsley, dill, fennel, chives)
1 t freshly grated lemon zest
1 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the softened butter and the remaining ingredients to a medium size bowl.
Use a large spoon to cream the ingredients together until well blended. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator.

If you save the butter for later, wrap it up in plastic wrap in the shape of a log and refrigerate until stiff. To use, just unwrap and slice from the butter log and place on warm food.

HERB BUTTER WITH CORNICHONS AND EGGS

Large bunch of fresh herbs, chopped (parsley, tarragon, chives, oregano, thyme)
3 cornichons, chopped
3 good quality anchovy fillets
1 T of chopped capers
3 egg yolks, hard boiled
1 clove of garlic peeled, crushed and chopped
12 T unsalted butter
Sea salt
Cayenne pepper

Drop the herbs into boiling water for 1 minute, place into an ice bath, then drain well. Place the herbs into a food processor or blender and purée in short bursts. Add the cornichons, anchovies, capers, egg yolks, and garlic; purée further until well combined. Add the butter and continue pulsing until you reach a smooth consistency, while seasoning with salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Serve immediately or save in refrigerator.

If you save the butter for later, wrap it up in plastic wrap in the shape of a log and refrigerate until firm. To use, just unwrap and slice from the butter log and place on warm food.

My youngest son just arrived in southern France (Languedoc-Roussillon) for a mystical summer sojourn in the country. The ancient regional language, Occitan, is still heard in parts of Languedoc. Occitan first began to appear in writing during the 10th century and was used particularly to write the poetry of the troubadours. When France became a unified country in the 15th century, the language of the Parisian court, langue d’oïl, was favored over Occitan and other regional languages, which fell into decline…langue d’oil slowly morphed into modern French.

During the 19th century, Occitan experienced a revival, largely thanks to the efforts of a Provençal literary group called the Félibre which included the Nobel laureate poet and wordsmith, Frédéric Mistral, who worked to standardize written Occitan. Their efforts have been rewarded as today there is one weekly newspaper La Setmana and magazines written entirely in Occitan and some regional newspapers, such as La Dépêche du Midi occasionally publishing columns in Occitan.

The word Languedoc means, literally, the language that uses “oc” which means “yes.” In contrast, “langue d’oïl,” means the language that uses “oïl”—an early form of “oui“—for the affirmative.

My son is particularly pumped, because tomorrow is lunch at his favorite pizza venue where he gets to feast al fresco on some just straightout awesome pie. No doubt some fine jambon et fromage will be visiting the yeasty, crisp dough on his plate. Most pizzerias in France feature a bottle of fiery oil known as pili pili, which is a combination of herbs, hot chili peppers, and oil that has its roots in central Africa. Just wondering whether his table sports a bottle which he can drizzle on a slice…but look forward to finding out soon enough.

Bon appetit ou Bon apetís, mon fils!

PILI PILI

1 fresh, plump garlic clove, peeled and minced finely
3 red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced finely
1 T oregano
2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1 t fennel seeds
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 bay leaves

1-2 C olive oil

Place the first 8 ingredients in a freshly cleansed bottle, then cover with oil. Close securely and let rest for several days. Not only reserved for pizzas, pili pili is delicious on grilled meats and vegetables.

Green Curry Paste

May 29, 2009

The uses are manifold—a stir fry seasoning, as a soup base, with coconut milk to create a sumptuous curry, or add some to a marinade for grilled meat.

GREEN CURRY PASTE

1 bunch of chives, coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, coarsely chopped
3 green chili peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds removed, coarsely chopped
2 cloves fresh plump garlic, peeled, coarsely chopped
2 T ginger, peeled and grated
2 T fresh lemon grass stalk, coarsely chopped
2 bunches fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 bunch basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1 T cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1/2 T coriander seeds, roasted and ground
Juice and zest of 1 lime
6 T canola or peanut oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place all ingredients in a food processor. Blend for a few minutes in bursts until well processed. Season to taste.

Use right away, or store in the refrigerator tightly sealed for up to 2 weeks.

A Return to Paninis

May 28, 2009

A touch of closure. This post is meant to partially deliver on an earlier promise from A Word About Paninis & Sandwiches that “recipes will follow on a subsequent entry.” Because many sandwiches, including paninis, are built in a rather similar fashion, these recipes are grouped in a communal manner. So, the common ingredients and basics are described first, followed by individual suggested fillings. But, the possibilities are nearly endless.

PANINIS

Ingredients:

Rustic bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Imaginative “fillings” (see below)

Basics:

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill with whatever combination or permutation soothes your soul—or simply build with your usual suspects. Again, when constructing paninis keep the quantities within reason. With paninis, you are not creating thick, fat sandwichs.

Heat the panini grill and press sandwiches until golden brown.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. The panini should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing luscious cheese.

Fillings:

Thinly sliced, roasted pancetta, arugula and mozzarella
Coppa, pesto, and provolone
Sauteed mushrooms, arugula, caramelized red onions and fontina
Soppressata, basil pesto, and mozzarella
Tapenade, arugula and fontina
Portabello, goat cheese, spinach, and truffle oil
Serrano, arugula, caramelized red onions and manchego
Coppa, sundried tomatoes and taleggio
Proscuitto, spinach and gruyere
Finocchiona, pesto, fontina and truffle oil
Proscuitto, tomato pesto and camembert
Soppressata, tapenade and asiago
Serrano, watercress, and brie
Proscuitto, fig jam and fontina
Proscuitto, roasted peppers, caramelized onions and gruyere
Serrano, sundried tomatoes, spinach and mozzarella
Fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella

Buon appetito!

Zucchini Gratin

May 26, 2009

Zucchini is an immature fruit, being the swollen ovary of the female flower of a summer squash. Natives of Central and South America have been enjoying zucchini for several thousand years, but our present day zucchini is likely a variety of the squash developed in Italy—a result of New World explorers returning to Europe bearing seeds. The word “zucchini” derives from the Italian zucchino, meaning small squash.

Fresh zucchini season at the local farmer’s markets here is not a far cry away.

ZUCCHINI GRATIN

4 T unsalted butter
1 t dried thyme
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced thin
2 lbs zucchini (4-5), sliced medium thin
1 C cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled

Grated fresh nutmeg
1/2 C fresh bread crumbs
1 C Gruyère, grated

Preheat the oven to 400 F

Melt the butter in a very large, heavy sauté pan and cook the onions over medium low heat, sprinkled with thyme, until tender but not browned, about 15-20 minutes. After draining some spread the onions out evenly in a baking or gratin dish which has already been rubbed with the fresh garlic. Arrange the zucchini, overlapping some, on top of the onions. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover with cream.

Sprinkle the zucchini mixture first with the grated nutmeg, then bread crumbs and finally the Gruyère. Place in the oven and bake until the zucchini is tender, but not too soft, and browned, about 20-25 minutes.

The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.
~Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Cover your eyes, vegans. This is meat, plain and simple, gnawing-bone-in-hand-Henry VIII stuff…a cruel image for some. To you, my apologies in advance.

For me, a pure and simple apotheosis. Lamb shanks are mentioned at my table much in the same exalted tones reserved for a local farmer’s fresh scrambled eggs, seared foie gras, roast pork belly, crispy skinned roast duck, rarefied pungent cheeses, foraged wild mushrooms and roasted bone marrow—all on “My Last Meal” short list. Just the names of these dishes are sweet nothings when whispered in my ear, and are sure to get me hot and bothered.

Once I experienced these succulent shanks as a child, they became the birthday meal request each year (usually roasted, sometimes attentively grilled). The long held passion I have for them is not unlike that profound and ceaseless lust you feel about the scent of an unrequited love. A yearning that stirs to the core…a kind of “can life exist without” lamb shanks?

The braising method below takes advantage of the high percentage of connective tissues that lamb shanks possess, slowly breaking them down to create juicy, tender flesh with tiers of evocative flavors and intoxicating aromas.

BRAISED LAMB SHANKS

Preheat oven to 450

1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

4 1-1 1/4 lb lamb shanks, not trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T brandy or cognac for deglazing

1 C or more of port
4 C or more chicken stock

1 C heavy whipping cream (optional)

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix.

Season the shanks with salt and pepper and then rub the spice mix all over the surface.

Place the shanks, standing heavy side down and narrow end up in a large, heavy Dutch oven or roasting pan. Roast in the oven, uncovered, for 1 hour.

Transfer lamb to a platter or baking dish and tent. Place the pan on the stovetop on medium heat and deglaze briefly with the brandy, scraping up cook bits on bottom. Then, return the lamb to the pan, again standing on end. Add the port and stock. Cover the pan and return it to the oven. Braise until the meat is quite tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven and again transfer to platter and tent. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve (chinois), then return to pan. Cook the braising sauce down until reduced and coats a spoon, adding cream and some more port to fortify throughout should you desire. The shanks and slow braising liquid produce a glistening, luxurious sauce.

Serve with the sauce in a boat and smashed potatoes, egg noodles or polenta. Of course, do not forget a lofty Cotes du Rhône, French Burgundy or Oregon Pinot Noir.

Finger licking good bottom dwellers. These two recipes display rather classic, yet embracingly simple, French culinary approaches. Pourquoi? Because our gallic friends across that watery expanse—long not crossed but which later became a migratory route for immigrants—have long had the fundamentals down on these denizens of the ocean floor.

Flatfish are an order (Pleuronectiformes) of ray finned fish, sometimes classified as a suborder of Perciformes. The scientific name means “side-swimmers” in Greek, so in many species both eyes lie on one side of the head, one or the other migrating through and around the head during development to create their characteristic assymetry. Evolution forever awes me.

Numerous species of flatfish are regularly caught in the Pacific with common market names such as sole (from gray to lemon to Dover), sanddab, turbot, plaice, fluke, flounder, and halibut. The name “sole” comes from its resemblance to a sandal, which in Latin is solea. A caveat emptor: in many markets, some species of flounder, especially the Atlantic species, are incorrectly labelled as lemon or gray sole. The true soles, Soleidae, include the common or Dover sole (Solea solea), so a trusted fishmonger is crucial…and there should be no fear in kindly asking about species identification or freshness.

On the other side of the world, Atlantic flatfish have not fared so well. Populations have experienced heavy fishing pressure by both domestic and international fleets over the last half century, and many species have been depleted to very low levels, particularly Atlantic halibut and some populations of yellowtail flounder. Efforts have been undertaken to revive the declining Atlantic flatfish populations, but until they have been reestablished, it may be prudent to avoid these species.

In this first recipe, fillets of sole are rolled to form what are termed paupiettes. Rolled beginning at the thickest end, the paupiettes will not unfurl as they cook. Sweet as candy.

SOLE PAUPIETTES WITH MUSHROOMS & WINE

2 lbs skinless and boneless sole fillets
2 C mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C scallions, sliced
1/3 C shallots, sliced
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1 C dry white wine, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc

1/2 C unsalted butter
1 T fresh chives, chopped, for garnish

Cut each fillet in half lengthwise, removing and discarding the small strip of sinew from the center of the fillets. With the white side that touched the bones on the outside of the paupiettes, roll up the fillets, starting at the thick end.

Gently place the paupiettes on end with the scallions, shallots, salt and pepper, in a medium heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Cover, reduce the heat, and boil gently for about 3 minutes.

Holding the lid so the paupiettes remain in the pan, pour the cooking liquid into a small saucepan and place it over high heat. Boil for a few minutes, or until the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Slowly add the butter and vigorously whisk mix until well blended. Bring to a gentle boil for a few seconds more.

Divide the paupiettes and mushrooms among plates, spoon sauce over the top, and sprinkle with chives.

In this next recipe, the fillets are poached gently in the oven.

SOLE POACHED IN WHITE WINE

2 lbs skinless and boneless sole fillets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T shallots, finely minced
3/4 C dry white wine
1/3 C fish stock or chicken broth

Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Fresh tarragon, minced

Preheat oven to 350 F

Dry the fish with paper towels, then remove any existing bones. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Butter a 9 x 12 baking dish. Strew half of the shallots in the baking dish, and then lay in the fish, skin side down. Sprinkle the remaining shallots over the fillets, and pour in enough wine and broth to come up just under the top of the fillets. Cover with waxed paper.

Place the dish in the lower one third of the preheated oven. The liquid should begin to bubble, and the fish will be done when it has turned to milky white, around 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully drain the cooking juices into a heavy small saucepan over medium high to high heat on the stove.

Tent the fish as you make the sauce. Reduce the juices until thick, syrupy. Vigorously whisk in lemon juice, little by little, than add parsley while stirring. Spoon the juices over the fish and sprinkle with fresh tarragon.

Scones

May 23, 2009

Scones supposedly originated in Scotland and were closely related to the griddle baked flatbread, known as bannock. The origin of the name scone is rather vague—some say the name comes from the Stone of Scone, where the Kings of Scotland were crowned; others contend that the name is derived from the Dutch word schoonbrot meaning “fine white bread” or from the German word sconbrot meaning “fine or beautiful bread;” another school speculates that scone is rooted in the Gaelic word sgonn, a “shapeless mass or large mouthful.”

As an aside, I prefer buttermilk.

SCONES

2 C all purpose or cake flour
1/4 C sugar
1 T baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
6 T chilled unsalted butter, cut into pads

1 large organic, free range egg
4 T cold buttermilk or whole milk
4 T cold heavy whipping cream
1/2 C dried currants or other dried fruit (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F

Sprinkle baking sheet lightly with flour. Combine 2 cups flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. It is important that the butter be cold so when it is worked into the flour mixture it becomes small, flour coated crumbs, not a smooth dough. Do not overwork the dough—it should be like pie dough. Work the dried fruits into the dough.

Whisk egg, milk and cream in small bowl. Combine egg mixture with dry ingredients, stirring with spoon until moist. If dry, add some more cream. Gather dough into ball. Turn out onto lightly floured surface. Shape dough into a round about 3/4 inch thick. Using a cookie cutter or small wine glass, cut rounds of dough. (Alternatively, you may simply cut the dough into triangles.) Gather the scraps, reshape the dough, and cut out more rounds or triangles. Arrange rounds on baking sheet. If desired, brush with an egg wash.

Bake scones until tops are lightly golden and a toothpic inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with butter, honey or jam.

Garlic Soup

May 22, 2009

GARLIC SOUP

Duck fat, long a staple of the kitchens in Gascony, imparts deeply opulent flavors to any dish. Many chefs revere the use of duck fat with potatoes in so many preparations.

(Gascony is a historical and cultural region of southwest France—east and south of Bordeaux—that was formerly part of the province of Guyenne and Gascony…a keenly gastronomic domain)

3 T duck, goose or chicken fat
6 leeks, cleaned, trimmed, rinsed, green tops discarded, whites finely chopped
30 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled

7 C chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Bouquet garni: several sprigs of fresh parsley and tarragon and several bay leaves, twined
Nutmeg, grated

5 organic, free range egg yolks
4 T olive oil

Baguette slices, toasted
Chives, for garnish

Over low heat in a large stock pot, melt the fat over low heat, then add the garlic. Cook while stirring occasionally, without browning, until the garlic has become very soft, about 30 minutes or so. During the last 15 minutes of this step, add the leeks so they sweat and soften too.

Add the chicken stock, salt and pepper, bouquet garni, and a little freshly grated nutmeg. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to simmer for about 20 minutes. Discard bouquet garni.

Blend the soup either with an hand immersion blender or by allowing the soup to cool slightly and pouring it into a blender or food processor. Blend until the soup is completely puréed.

Whisk the egg yolks in a small bowl while drizzling in the olive oil. Very slowly and cautiously add hot soup to the yolks a small amount at a time while still beating the eggs. When you have added a cup or so to the eggs, slowly pour the remainder of the egg mixture into the soup vigorously whisking while you do so. Heat the mixture gingerly being careful not to allow the soup come to a boil which would curdle the eggs.

Place a toasted baguette slice in the bottom of each bowl and pour the soup over top. Serve, garnished with chives.

Marsala is a fortified wine produced in the region surrounding the its namesake city on the coast of Sicily. The wine is made using a process called in perpetuum, which is similar to the solera system used to produce Spanish sherry. In this continual technique, wine is drawn for bottling from sets of barrels which have been topped off with wine from the next set in the rack. Each barrel is subsequently fininshed with wine from the next set of barrels along the solera. When the last set of barrels is reached, new wine that is just entering the solera is added. So, years into the life of a solera, a complex and mature sherry results which combines the best of both worlds—the mature depth and strata from the older wines with the fresh crispness from the youthful ones. Not unlike most generational processes.

There are a number of varieties of Marsala wines which are classified in accordance with their age. This ranges from Fine, which is aged for less than one year, to varieties like Vergine e/o Soleras Stravecchio e Vergine e/o Soleras Riserva that are aged for at least 10 years.

Marsala is a seaport located in the Trapani province which features a low coastline, and is situated is the westernmost point of the island. Formerly called Lilybaeum, Marsala was the principal stronghold of the Carthaginians in Sicily, and was founded in 396 BC by the survivors of the nearby Phonecian island of Motya, whose city had been destroyed by the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse.

The Saracens, who ruled Sicily during the tenth century, gave Marsala its current moniker which is derived from the Arab Marsa Allah “port of Allah” or perhaps Marsa Ali “port of Ali” as the ancient harbor of Lylibaeum was immense.

The English trader John Woodhouse is often attributed with introducing local Marsala wine to an even wider audience. In 1773, Woodhouse landed at the port of Marsala and sampled this regional fortified wine, which was aged in wooden casks and tasted similar to Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines which were then the rage in England. He risked dispatching a considerable consignment of wine to England to sound out the market. Given the positive response, the merchant set up his own company in Marsala.

A more cost conscious but equally delectable version of this recipe can be made by substituting boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

SCALOPINI AL MARSALA (VEAL MARSALA)

2 C chicken broth
3 T finely chopped shallot
6 T unsalted butter
12 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
2 t fresh sage, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 C all purpose flour
6 veal cutlets
1/2 T dried sage
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C dry Marsala wine

1 C heavy cream
2 T fresh lemon juice

Fresh sage, chopped
1/4 C capers, drained (optional)

Bring broth to a boil in a 2 quart saucepan over high heat, then boil, uncovered, until reduced to about 1 cup, about 20 minutes.

Cook shallots in 3 tablespoons butter in a heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until shallot begins to turn golden, about 1 minute. Add mushrooms, 2 teaspoon sage, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid mushrooms give off is evaporated and mushrooms begin to brown. Set aside, tented.

Pound veal until thin but not torn, season with dried sage, salt and pepper; then dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Sauté veal in 3 tablespoons butter and olive oil until browned but not entirely done, then set aside. Do not overcook as you will return the veal to the pan later.

To deglaze, add Marsala to skillet and boil over high heat, stirring and scraping up brown bits, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add reduced broth, mushrooms, and cream, then simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened. Return veal to pan and complete the thickening process. Add lemon juice and a couple more tablespoons Marsala. Serve with chopped fresh sage sprinkled over the veal. The capers are just a reflection of my addiction to these pungent little berries.

Serve with linguine or toasted orzo (see Toasted Orzo post).