There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.
~William Shakespeare, Hamlet (scene V)

Why is fennel such a neglected child? A culinary tragedy of sorts.

It seems incongruous that this versatile perennial herb always warms the bench in cooks’ imaginations…especially given fennel’s illustrious past. In Greek mythology, the wily titan Prometheus smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk. The decisive battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians (490 BC) was allegedly waged on a plain covered in wild fennel. Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder lauded its medicinal properties, and had numerous herbal remedies linked to fennel. The almost omnipotent medieval king, Charlemagne, had fennel cultivated in his garden to serve the household, perhaps to be shared by each of his nine wives. He later regally mandated that fennel be nurtured in every imperial garden. During this era, fennel was used to protect against witchcraft and evil spirits. Later, in the new world, Puritans chewed fennel seeds during church services, calling them “meeting seed.” (Only Puritans would fail to grasp that double entendre, but perhaps Charlemagne was on to something.)

The fennel found in your local market is Florence fennel, or finocchio, which are topped by fragrant, delicate emerald fronds attached to stout stalks that resemble celery. The edible white “bulb” is actually not that at all, but rather concentrated stacked leaves that unpack like the base of a celery stalk.

You are not alone if you have never cooked with fennel, but I implore you to re-evaluate. Fennel has a subtle flavor that is enticing enough solo, but it also blends well and enhances the flavors of nearby foods. It is eaten raw (often shaven), sautéed, steamed, braised, roasted and grilled with a whole host of food mates—a versatile one.

BEET & FENNEL SALAD WITH CITRUS VINAIGRETTE

6 medium beets
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
2 T white wine vinegar
1/2 T organic honey
1 T lemon juice
1 T orange juice
1 T grapefruit juice
Sea salt
1/4 t lemon zest
1/4 t orange zest
1/4 t grapefruit zest

1/2 C hazelnuts, roasted and chopped

1 fennel bulb, quartered and cored
1 C frisée, torn in pieces
1 C watercress

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, lightly splash them with water, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel using a paper towel. Cut into wedges, put them in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Add the red wine vinegar and olive oil, then toss.

In the meantime, wash and dry greens and carefully shave the fennel quarters on a mandoline or slicer.

In a bowl, whisk together the shallot, white wine vingar, honey, citrus juices, and a pinch of salt. Allow to rest and macerate while grating the citrus for zest and preparing the hazelnuts. Slowly drizzle olive oil into the bowl while whisking constantly and then stir in the zests and hazelnuts to complete the vinaigrette. If necessary, add salt to taste.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss beets, fennel, and frisée and watercress in vinaigrette to lightly, but thoroughly, coat. (The French believe it takes 33 turns for a salad to be properly dressed.) Drenching a salad with vinaigrette is a cardinal sin which carries a sentence of temporary banishment from the kitchen.

Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolates.
~Fernando Pessoa

Records of chocolate use date back to the pre-Columbian Olmec culture, with evidence of the oldest known cultivation of cacao having been discovered at a site in the Honduras, dating from about 1100 to 1400 BC. Cacao beans from this tree native to lowland, tropical South America were used by the Aztecs to prepare a hot beverage with purported stimulant and restorative properties—with the white pulp around the cacao beans likely used as a source of fermentable sugars for an alcoholic drink. Chocolate was commonly reserved for the upper crust, such as warriors, nobility and priests for its reputed ability to confer wisdom and vitality. Offered as a drink, this chocolate concoction called xocoatl was also served during religious rites, and the sacred concoction was associated with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. Not surprisingly then, legend has it that each day emperor Montezuma II drank 50 golden goblets of frothy, sometimes bitter xocoatl. (Later, the nuns of a Mexican convent quietly made the bitter drink more palatable with the addition of vanilla and sugar.)

The Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, had lavishly praised chocolate in a letter to Charles V of Spain, and brought an ample supply home in his galleons after the cruel conquest and colonization of the Aztec nation which was completed in 1521. He also established a cocoa plantation in honor of the king, and as he explored other tropical lands and islands, he planted cocoa beans in their native soils. It should be said that Cortés was far from a truly romantic hero, noble explorer or munificent soul—rather, he has been roundly accused of open brutality and heinous violence towards the Indians by many historians.

About a century after the Iberian iniation, the Spanish enthusiasm for chocolate was passed to the French court with the marriage of Marie Thérèse, a chocoholic of the first order, to Louis IV in 1660. Here, the drink was considered an aphrodisiac and happily imbibed by the court and members of the wealthy classes. The popular drink was also spread throughout Europe when the Spanish friars carried the beverage with them from monastery to monastery. Originally, the Europeans mixed their chocolate with water, coffee, wine and a number of fermented drinks, as well as with pepper and other spices. Remember, chocolate was only served as a beverage or used as a pastry ingredient until the 19th century, when the bar was invented.

Recent research has linked flavanols, especially epicatechin, to improved blood circulation, heart health and memory in mice, snails and humans. Besides improvements on certain memory tests, researchers also found increased memory function in an area of the brain’s hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, and the entorhinal cortex, which is often impaired in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

These chocolate gems known as “truffles” are meant to mimic the highly prized edible fungi found in France and Italy which fetch such exhorbitant prices. Once the truffles are formed, they are often rolled in cocoa powder to simulate the “dirt” found on the real truffles.

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

6 oz quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
2 organic, free range egg yolks, room temperature
2 T heavy whipping cream
1 t strong coffee
1/3 stick butter, cut into small bits

1 t brandy, Grand Marnier, kirsch, rum (optional)

Coatings: quality cocoa powder, confectioners’ sugar, toasted coconut flakes

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler—a medium size bowl set over a large saucepan with simmering water. Remove bowl from heat, but allow the saucepan to continue to simmer. Add the egg yolks to the melted chocolate, slowly and constantly whisking for a few seconds to avoid curdling. Add the the cream, coffee (and alcohol), then place back over the simmering water for a few seconds until smooth, while constantly whisking. Remove the bowl from the heat again and add the butter bit by bit, whisking after each addition. Once all the butter has been fully assumed, whisk for 3 minutes or so to aerate the mixture. With a rubber spatula, spoon into another medium sized bowl. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for approximately 6 hours.

Place your chosen coatings for the truffles on a plate. Remove the truffle mixture from the refrigerator, and using a spoon, divide the mixture evenly to make small balls. With your hands, form the chocolate into rounds about 1″ to 1 1/4″ in diameter. Immediately roll the truffle in the coating and place them on a parchment lined baking sheet. Carefully cover and place in the refrigerator until firm.

Basic Pasta Dough

June 10, 2009

Pasta (the Italian word for dough)—from the Latin pasta “dough, pastry cake, paste”, and before the Greek πάστα (pasta) “barley porridge”—has such convoluted origins, that its history demands much more than this brief space allows. In any event, making pasta has been an ancient and time honored tradition.

One of life’s simple pleasures, airy and delicate fresh pasta opens with that slight al dente resistance, but still almost melts in your mouth on the back-end. Whether by machine or hand, the goal is simple: dough with a smooth texture, elastic and pliable, yet sturdy.

BASIC PASTA DOUGH

3 organic free range eggs, beaten
Pinch of sea salt
2 C all purpose flour
Water, as needed

By Machine:

Attach the flat beater to your stand up mixer, then add half of the flour mixture and the eggs, turning to a low speed and mix 30 seconds. Add the rest of the sifted flour mixture and mix an additional 30 seconds, adding sprinklings of water as needed. Variables such as humidity, temperature, egg size and gluten content of the flour will govern water needs.

Note: To test for correct consistency, pinch a small amount of dough together after mixing with the flat beater. If it stays together and not gluing to your fingers, the dough is in good shape. It may be necessary to adjust by adding flour or water to reach the proper harmony.

Exchange flat beater for the dough hook. Again turn to a low speed and knead for 2 to 3 minutes, until a dough ball is formed. Remove dough from bowl and on a lightly floured surface hand knead for a couple of minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic with a slight hint of stickiness. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap to prevent a dry skin from forming. Let rest for at least 30 minutes before dividing, rolling and cutting.

By Hand:

Mound flour in a bowl or on a large wooden bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and then add the eggs. Using your fingers, begin to blend flour and eggs from the center out, slowly gathering the flour from the perimeter. When the flour and egg are mixed, add a couple drops of water if necessary.

When the dough forms a mass, transfer it to a lightly floured surface and start kneading, using primarily the palms of your hands. Continue kneading for a minimum of 10 minutes, dusting the board with additional flour as necessary. The dough should be smooth and elastic with a slight hint of stickiness. Form into a ball and wrap dough in plastic wrap. Let rest for at least 30 minutes before dividing, rolling and cutting.

Rolling and Cutting:

Divide the dough, but cutting into 4 pieces, wrapping 3 of them in plastic or covering them with a towel. Flour the dough very lightly then flatten until it is about 1/4″ thick. Set the rollers of the the pasta machine to the widest setting. Feed the dough into and through the machine with your hands. As the flattened dough comes out of the machine, retrieve it gently with your open palm. Avoid pulling the sheets of dough out of the machine; instead allow the pasta to emerge and support it lightly with your hand. Fold the dough into thirds, flatten it slightly with your hands and roll it through again and repeat this process 4 or 5 more times.

If throughout the process the pasta sheets become become too long to work with, cut into two pieces and continue.

Set the rollers to the next thinnest setting and lightly flour the dough, but do not fold. Pass the dough through the machine on each progressive setting until the dough is at desired thinness (usually the next to last or last setting). Repeat the entire process with the remaining pieces of dough.

Let the dough rest on towels or a floured work surface. Use machine to cut into desired shapes or strands.

A tandoor is a cylindrical clay pot used in south Asian cuisine, notably (but not limited to) northern India and Pakistan, in which food is cooked over hot charcoal or wooden fire at high temperatures. The earthen oven is commonly sunk neck deep in the ground. Strictly speaking, Tandoori simply describes a dish cooked in a tandoor, which can include meats, fish, poultry or breads…but, in western parlance the term has seemed to have been enlarged to include a spice mix, which varies from kitchen to kitchen. Not having a true tandoor at hand—which would no doubt violate numerous building codes—this is the closest we can get.

SEARED YELLOWTAIL TUNA TANDOORI

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
2 T tandoori spices*
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 (4 oz) yellowtail tuna filets, fat and skin trimmed away
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1/2 C rice wine vinegar
1 T honey
1/2 t mirin
1 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 C cilantro leaves
2 C watercress
1/2 C arugula

Lemon zest

In a small bowl, whisk together rice vinegar, honey, mirin, salt and pepper. In a steady, narrow stream, slowly drizzle in olive oil, whisking constantly. Set aside.

In a bowl, place olive oil, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of the tandoori, salt and pepper. Rub the top of each filet with the smashed garlic, season with salt, pepper and the rest of the tandoori on both sides. Then dip the filets in the bowl, coating both sides evenly. Reserve the remaining flavored oil for sauce.

Place a heavy skillet over medium to medium high heat, and sear the tuna filets gently, approximately 2 minutes on each side. When done, the tuna should be rare in the middle but not cold. (Alternatively, the tuna could be grilled over a charcoal or wood fire prepared to medium high heat to loosely imitate a tandoor.)

Toss greens with vinaigrette, arrange tuna over, and then drizzle reserved sauce over the top. Grate a touch of lemon zest over each filet before serving.

*Tandoori Spices

2 T coriander seeds
2 T cumin seeds
1 T cardamom seeds

3 T sweet paprika
2 T turmeric
2 T sea salt
1 T freshly ground black pepper
1 T ground ginger
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t cayenne pepper

Strew the coriander, cumin and cardamom seeds in a dry heavy skillet over medium heat and roast for a few minutes until essences are released. Place in a spice or coffee grinder and reduce to a powder. Then, place in a bowl, add remaining ingredients and mix well. Stores well tightly covered in a cool, dry place.

The Spanish ladies of the New World are madly addicted to chocolate, to such a point that, not content to drink it several times each day, they even have it served to them in church.
~Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin

A lush endorphin rush.

“FLOURLESS” CHOCOLATE TORTE & GANACHE

6 large organic, free range, eggs, separated
16 T (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
9 ozs high quality bittersweet chocolate (70-85% cocoa), chopped
1 C granulated white sugar, divided
1 t pure vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
1/4 C all purpose flour

Confectioners’ sugar or high quality cocoa powder

Ganache:
8 ounces high quality bittersweet chocolate (70-85% cocoa), chopped
3/4 C heavy whipping cream
2 T unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350 F

Butter a 9″ x 3″ springform pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.

Separate the eggs while still cold, placing the egg whites in one bowl and the egg yolks in another bowl. Cover both with plastic wrap and bring to room temperature.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water. Cool to lukewarm.

Place egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in the bowl of the electric mixer and beat with the flat paddle on medium high speed until thick, ribbon-like and lemon colored, about 3-5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract, salt, flour and melted chocolate mixture.

In another bowl, with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula or whisk, fold a small amount of whites into the egg yolk mixture to lighten the batter. Add the remaining egg whites, gently folding just until incorporated. Do not over mix.

Pour into the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35-45 minutes. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool, still in pan. Refrigerate for several hours. Remove cake from refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving. Remove springform pan sides, invert cake onto a large plate, and peel away the parchment paper from bottom. Reinvert cake on another large plate or serving platter.

Either serve with confectioners’ sugar or cocoa powder with homemade vanilla bean ice cream or crème anglaise, unless you opt for ganache.

If covering the torte with ganache (below), cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least several hours.

Ganache:

Place the chopped chocolate in a stainless steel bowl. Heat the cream and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a strong simmer, then pour the cream and butter mixture over the chocolate and allow to stand for 5-10 minutes. Stir until smooth.

Pour the ganache into the center of the cake. Spread the ganache with a spatula, using broad strokes to push the ganache over the sides of the cake, to create an even coating over the entire cake. Refrigerate until served.

Cold soup is a very tricky thing, and it is the rare hostess who can carry it off. More often than not, the dinner guest is left with the impression that had he only come a little earlier he could have gotten it while it was still hot.
~Fran Lebowitz

Oddly, I chose this cool, rainy, ruminative day to write about cold fare. But, our sultry and sometimes sweltering summer will soon swoop down, so now is the time to dust off and unveil some cold soups—and I do mean well chilled, not room temp.

The English cucumber makes a much superior choice of these green vegetal cylinders. After all, it handles the rigors of shipping well, appears in decent quantities and has such sweetly flavored flesh and skin that you can eat the entire vegetable. The flesh is smooth and refreshingly moist.

It is generally sold wrapped in plastic to reduce water loss, and so is usually not waxed as are other varieties. Contrary to popular belief, English cucumbers are not enitrely seedless, but the seeds are much smaller and less prominent. Cucumbers contain surprisingly high amounts of protein and vitamin B1 as well as an enzyme called erepsin, which aids in digesting protein.

Here is a trio of fresh and crisp chilled soups that soothe on those torrid days…

CHILLED ENGLISH CUCUMBER SOUP WITH DILL

1 1/2 T unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onions
4 English cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut crosswise into 1/2″ slices
1 russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 1/2 C chicken broth
4 large fresh dill fronds
6 tablespoons minced fresh dill
1 t salt

1 cup crème fraîche
Thin smoked salmon slices, about 3″ long

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until slightly softened and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add cucumbers and potato; stir 1 minute. Add broth, dill fronds, and salt. Increase heat and bring to simmer, then reduce heat to low; cover and simmer until cucumbers and potato are tender, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Remove and discard dill fronds.

Working in batches, purée soup in processor until smooth. Return to pot and cool 30 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 4 tablespoons minced dill. Cover and chill until cold, about 4 hours. Taste soup, adding more salt if desired.

Ladle soup into shallow bowls. Spoon a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of each bowl, and artfully arrange smoked salmon slices over the dollop. Lightly sprinkle with the remaining minced dill.

CHILLED ASPARAGUS SOUP

8 T unsalted butter
3 lbs fresh asparagus, bases snapped off and spears sliced in 1″ lengths
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 small spring onions or cippolinis, white part only, peeled and finely chopped

2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt vegetable stock

1 C tarragon leaves, stems removed and discarded
1 1/2 C spinanch, blanched, ice bathed and drained on paper towels
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1-2 T Champagne vinegar

Crème fraîche
Caviar or salmon roe (optional)

Over medium heat, add butter to 1 large, heavy saucepan. Just when the butter has become foamy, add onion, spring onions and garlic. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Sweat mixture until soft and translucent, but not browned.

Add both stocks and potato to pan. Lightly season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until potatoes are tender. Once potatoes are tender, bring to a rolling boil and add the asparagus. Once the soup returns to a boil, reduce and simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to a large bowl and chill soup immediately in an ice bath.

In a food processor or blender, add tarragon and spinach to soup mixture and purée well in batches until smooth. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and champagne vinegar. Cover and chill until cold, about 4 hours.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish each with a dollop of crème fraîche and a teaspoon of caviar or roe.

Pourboire: in lieu of crème fraîche and fish eggs, you may consider crumbling some fine goat cheese over the soup. More rustic, but no less flavorful.

CHILLED AVOCADO SOUP

4 ripe medium avocados, halved, pitted, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 C buttermilk
1 C plain organic yogurt
3 T fresh lime juice
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and diced
2 T chopped seeded jalepeño chili
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 C chicken broth

White pepper
Sea salt

Sour cream
Lime zest
Red chili pepper, finely minced

Place avocados into processor and add buttermilk and yogurt; purée until smooth. Mix in lime juice, red oninon, jalepeño and cayenne pepper and purée further. With machine running, blend in 1/2 cup chicken broth. Season with salt and white pepper. Chill soup until cold, about 4 hours.

Ladel soup into shallow bowls. Serve each with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of lime zest and minced red chili pepper.

My idea of heaven is eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.
~Sydney Smith

Is there a food stuff that causes more audible moans than foie gras? And these are the genuine, euphoric, bone deep type—not the staged purrs of a cleavaged Giada undulating under hot lights popping risotto balls and sucking her fingers.

Foie gras has been the subject of a recent food fight, courtesy of animal rights advocates…almost like the new fur. The controversy rose to the level of having these delicacies outlawed in the Windy City in a move much akin to a ban on sex or wine. A two year prohibition on serving these heavenly morsels, which was openly flaunted by restauranteurs, was repealed by an overwhelming vote. There seems to be nothing more entertaining than the ever shifting dramas orchestrated or stumbled upon by Chicago’s aldermen.

Most American foie gras is gleaned from Moulard ducks which are a cross between the Muscovy and Pekin species.

SEARED FOIE GRAS WITH FIGS, PORT WINE & LAVENDER HONEY

1 whole duck foie gras, about 1 1/2 pounds, slightly chilled
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T unsalted butter

1 T extra virgin olive oil
6 fresh black mission figs, halved
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
6 tarragon leaves, chopped
1/2 C port wine
2 T apple cider vinegar
1 T orange juice

2 T unsalted butter, room temperature
1 T lavender honey (warmed) or raw unprocessed honey
1/2 t orange zest
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Rinse the foie gras and pat dry with paper towels. Carefully pull apart the 2 lobes of the foie gras and with your fingers remove the veins that are lodged between them. Cut away any extraneous fat and green spots and pull away any membranes. On the inner side of the small lobe, carefully pull away the large vein that runs through the center and remove any smaller veins that branch out from it. With the larger lobe, locate the larger central vein and remove it with any attached veins.

Using a sharp knife dipped in boiling water, slice each lobe into 1″ medallions. Score the top of each medallion in a diagonal pattern and season with salt and pepper. Add the butter to a heavy skillet over medium head and sear the medallions for 30-45 seconds per side. Please be careful not to overcook or you will be rewarded with a puddle of expensive melted fat. Remove to a platter lined with paper towels to drain and tent.

Lower heat to medium and pour out a bit of the rendered duck fat. Add the figs, cut side down, then add the shallots and tarragon, cook until figs are brown, about 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with port, apple cider vinegar, and orange juice, cooking about 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and vigorously whisk in butter, honey, orange zest, salt and pepper. Spoon over foie gras slices which are arranged over a slice of grilled or toasted toast and surrounded by figs.