The fennel is beyond every other vegetable, delicious. It greatly resembles in appearance the largest size celery, perfectly white, and there is no vegetable equals it in flavour. It is eaten at dessert, crude, and with, or without dry salt, indeed I preferred it to every other vegetable, or to any fruit
~Thomas Jefferson

If fennel is good enough for Thomas Jefferson, it is good enough for you…and for gracing your pizzas, bruschettas, crostinis and tarts and for nestling up to your roasted or grilled meats, poultry, fish and so on and so forth.

Jefferson was a scientist, philosopher, statesman, author, architect, musician, naturalist, zoologist, botanist, farmer, bibliophile, inventor, wine conoisseur, and mathematician…and in his spare time was the President of the United States, Vice President, Secretary of State, Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, and founder of the University of Virginia. Oh, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence. What have we accomplished this week?

It is self evident that Jefferson sallied forth to pursue the eclectic and exotic in all facets of his public life (and private dalliances, too).

Much like with garlic, braising and roasting causes fennel to undergo an almost radical transformation. The sometimes intense and lingering licorice flavor of raw fennel softens and cedes to much more voluptuous, sweet, nutty and herbal aromas and flavors with the bulb’s characteristic crunch turning soft and silky. See Beet & Fennel Salad—Undeservedly So

BRAISED FENNEL

4 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed of stems and fronds, cut into 1 1/2″ wedges
3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
3/4 C dry white wine
3/4 C chicken broth
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375

Over medium low, heat the olive oil in a large heavy skillet. Lay fennel wedges in the pan. Saute until golden on the bottom, about 8 minutes, then turn and repeat on the other side. If necessary, brown in batches. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the fennel in a single layer in a baking dish. Add the wine and chicken broth, transfer the dish to the oven, and braise until tender, about 30-40 minutes. Remove and season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

ROASTED FENNEL

3-4 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed of stems and fronds, cut lengthwise, then into 1/2″ slices
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 400

Coat fennel with olive oil with hands, season with salt and pepper, and then sprinkle with some balsamic vinegar. Line a baking dish with aluminum foil. Arrange fennel in dish and roast for 30-40 minutes, until the fennel softens and begins to caramelize.

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Fútbol & Food

June 24, 2009

Football is a matter of life and death, except more important.
~Bill Shankly, English football manager

A sports aside which readily segues into a passion for food. Soccer (well, “football”), is a sport that has long feed deep ardor across the globe. While European and South American teams have traditionally held sway, every other continent has joined the competitive fray at a high level.

What does this have to do with food? Maybe, soccer demands patience, entails technique, sometimes develops slowly, often places a premium on simplicity, differs in style by culture, and has an avid (even zealous) following everywhere. And, just think of the culinary cauldron stirred by the medley of cultures represented by the World Cup attendees and their loyal, sometimes rabid, devotees. Chinese, French, Korean, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Greek, Central American, Brazilian, Argentine, Indian, Middle Eastern, African…simply some of the greatest cuisines known to civilization (and that is an embarassedly short list).

Today, a soccer shocker with some reverberation occurred.  A  United States team, which was believed to be vastly outclassed, stunned a magnificently skilled Spanish squad, 2-0, in the Confederations Cup semifinals. An improbable, yet exhilirating upset. Granted it was not the World Cup, but it remains a striking accomplishment—a United States men’s team reaching the final of a significant international tournament. Of course, I was elated, but that does not diminish my respect for the supremely talented Spaniards who remain one of the favorites to vie for the World Cup championship next year. Little doubt that Spain will be back, but also that the United States unit gained some needed team tread going forward.

Even though in the end, the Spanish players left the field so frustrated the customary exchange of jerseys was dispensed with, it only seems fair to serve up some regional Spanish tapas to the vanquished. Both teams were ultimately gracious in defeat and victory. Over a post game meal, let them lick some wounds, and allow the American squad regale in their triumph with some bubbly and good grub too.

CHICKEN WITH FRUIT & NUTS

5 T extra virgin olive oil
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into a 2 or 3 pieces each
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 Vidalia onion, peeled, cut in half, and sliced thinly

12 dried apricots, halved
4 Mission figs, halved
4 dried prunes, halved
2 T raisins
6 T pine nuts
2 cinnamon sticks
Thyme sprigs
4 T brandy
1 C sweet white wine

2 C chicken stock
Chopped fresh herbs

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper to taste and place them in the pan. Sear until lightly brown, a couple of minutes on each side. Remove and set aside.

Add the garlic to the pan and cook until just before brown, about 30 seconds. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and then the onions. Cook until the onions are caramelized, about 15 minutes. Do not let them fully brown.

Add the dried fruits, nuts, cinnamon sticks, thyme sprigs and brandy. Cook until the brandy is reduced by half. Add the wine and cook until the sauce thickens to coat the spatula, less than 1 minute.

Add the chicken stock, stir, and continue cooking until it forms a sauce. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve.

In probability theory and statistics, standard deviation is often used to measure the variability or dispersion of a population…sort of  “the arithmetic mean of the mean.”   To solve for population standard deviations:

  standard_deviation_population

Algebraic variables deliberately ignored and aside, I embrace diversity (even kind aberrations)…and conversely tend to mildly loathe homogeneity. So, in an arena where sadly sameness is too often the rapt intent—where homage is paid to the perfect societal mean—finding a venue where variation rules is comfort food. Our downtown city market is that place for me (locally at least).

A feast of old, young, tall, short, skinny, rotund, bubble butted, flat tushed, long haired, close cropped, brown cow eyed, azure blued, perfumed, pregnant globed, stroller pushing, inked, pierced, bearded, shaven, rural, urban, exotic, banal, yellow, brown, mahogany, white, thai, latin, african american, phillipine, shorts, jeans, short skirts, flowing sundresses…all hues, shapes and sizes converging to eye, buy and sell fresh produce, hoofed and feathered meats, free range eggs, organic honey, trinkets, etc.  And all the while, of course, there is even gandering, leering and ogling at one another.  The market is just an engrossing cultural and linguistic tapestry, teeming with an array of sights, scents, flavors, sensations and sounds.

Thanks, all…home hewn Father’s Day pizzas will be strewn with your bounty save for some confit de canard recently imported from a market far away but soul-close.

A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.
~Laurie Colwin

A curious word for a dish: flognarde. Sounds like some form of physiological aberration or flagelum, even a particular variety of birch rod. But, I do like the way it rolls off the tongue. The “gn” like oignon, agneau or bagnoire followed by the letter “r” which is arguably one of the more difficult consonants to properly articulate in the French tongue.

Last weekend I learned that heirlooms will be making their seasonal opening act at the local farmers’ market on Saturday. That not only brought a smile, but it signaled the beginning of a long stretch of culinary ecstasy and sounded a change in daily eating habits. While we do lack an ocean or mountains—something that becomes unnerving at times—we do have a tomato season which is worthy of worship.

Handed down for generations, Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras, Brandywines et. al.,…these tomatoes are heirloom plants, which are open pollinated (non-hybrid) cultivars. Heirloom varieties have been commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but were eschewed by modern agribusiness. The relatively recent revival of these jewels at city markets has been nothing less than a blessing. They possess a rich tapestry of colors, coupled with a diversity and depth of flavors that is tough to match in the food world.

HEIRLOOM TOMATO FLOGNARDE

2 lbs ripe multihued heirloom tomatoes, cored, seeded, peeled and quartered
3 large organic, free range eggs
2 large organic, free range egg yolks
1/3 C heavy whipping cream
1/3 C gruyère, grated
1/3 C parmigiano reggiano, grated
1 t fresh rosemary, stemmed and finely chopped
1 t fresh thyme, stemmed and finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375 F

Drain the tomatoes on paper towels, then season with salt and pepper. Make sure they are fully free of juices before proceeding. In a bowl, combine the eggs, egg yolks, cream, and half of the cheeses and herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper and whisk together. Layer the tomatoes in a baking dish, then cover with the batter. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and herbs.

Bake until golden, about 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
~Albert Einstein

Albert was da bomb.

AGLIO e OLIO

1 lb. dried spaghetti or linguini
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t crushed hot pepper flakes

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 T chopped parsley
Parmigiano reggiano and pecorino romano (optional)

Heat water in a large heavy pot to a boil and liberally add salt. Cook the spaghetti until al dente and drain.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet along with the garlic and hot pepper flakes. When the garlic first begins to change color toss in the drained spaghetti, salt, black pepper, and parsley. Lightly grate with the cheeses (optional and contrary to tradition).

Pourboire: to alter matters more, consider tossing the pasta with drained, rinsed and dried capers then top with a boiled egg cut into quarters or eighths.

Soupe Au Pistou

June 13, 2009

So, how do you grant shrift to spellbinding Provence? Note to Will: brevity is not always the soul of wit (whit).

Simply identify it as Provençal: Provença in classical norm or Prouvènço in Mistralian norm, a region of southeastern France? In a droning museum voice name it as a host to Paleolithic sites dating to 900,000 B.C? Call it home to a permanent Greek settlement called Massalia, established at modern day Marseilles in about 600 B.C. by colonists coming from Phocaea (now Foça, on the Aegean coast in modern Turkey)? Christen it the first Roman province outside of Italy? Baptize it as the “annex” of the formerly Italian Roman Catholic papacy which moved to Avignon in the 14th Century? Title it an abode to the souls of Cézanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso? Or just not so blandly classify it as a region that comprises the départements of Var, Vaucluse, and Bouches-du-Rhône and parts of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Alpes-Maritimes?

So many missteps, so much left out. Such is the construct of a blog. But, beyond cavil or retort, Provence and Italy are viscerally intermingled. Consider something as simple as pizzas or the subtle difference between pesto vs. pistou. Sans pine nuts, they are still divinely intertwined.

Soupe au pistou is a more than memorable Provençal soup that is brimming with summer garden bounty…gifts from friends at the market. Thanks, John, et al.

Footnote:
see I am Sam, Sam I am, infra for pesto.

SOUPE AU PISTOU

1/2 C dried lima or white beans
Bouquet garni I: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together
3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlics, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Pistou:
6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Pinch of sea salt
3 C fresh basil leaves, washed
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
3 medium leeks, white part only, cut lengthwise, then into thin half rings
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced (almost shaven)

2 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into half discs
1/2 fennel bulb, finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
Bouquet garni II: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together

2 medium zucchini, trimmed and chopped
2 tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 C diminutive pasta such as ditalini, conchigliette or acini di pepe

1 C freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano
1 C freshly grated gruyère

Rinse beans and remove any imperfections. Place the beans in a large bowl and add boiling water to cover. Set aside for 1 hour. Drain the beans.

In a large, heavy saucepan, stir together the olive oil, garlic and bouquet garni. Cook over medium heat until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the beans and stir to coat with oil and garlic. Cook an additional minute, then add 1 quart of water. Stir, then cover, bring to a simmer and cook approximately 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove and discard bouquet garni I. Set beans aside.

Meanwhile, combine garlic, salt and basil in a food processor or blender or a mortar and process in bursts to a paste. Drizzle in olive oil in a thin, continuous stream while processing. Stir to blend well. Set the pistou aside.

In a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven, combine the leeks, onions, and garlic over low heat and cook until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Do not brown or burn. Add the carrots, fennel, potatoes, and bouquet garni II to the pot, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Now, add the beans and their cooking liquid, the zucchini and tomatoes, along with 2 quarts of water to the pot. Simmer gently, uncovered, about 20 minutes.

Add the pasta and simmer, uncovered, until the pasta is cooked, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Stir in half of the pistou and half of the cheese.

Serve soup, passing remaining pistou and cheeses at the table.

RICE WITH LEMON & PINE NUTS

2 1/2 C chicken stock
1/2 C white wine

1 1/2 C long grain rice

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 dried bay leaves

2 lemons, grated for zest
3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 C pine nuts, toasted

Heat olive oil over medium high heat in a heavy sauce pan and add rice until it turns translucent. Add the stock, wine, salt, pepper and bay leaves, and bring to a vigorous simmer, then cover tightly, reduce to low and cook for about 20 minutes. Do not uncover the pan during the cooking process. Remove the pan from the heat and let sit for 10 minutes, still covered. The rice is done when small dimples appear on the surface, sometimes called “fish eyes.” Discard bay leaves, stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice and toasted pine nuts. Serve.