Oysters are the most tender and delicate of all seafoods. They stay in bed all day and night. They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them.
~Hector Bolitho

Another instance of less can really be more. Sort of in a quiet mollusk mode this evening, letting the water course over. Going for the basics from the bounty without much fanfare or meandering seemed the right direction. A simple concept, fruits de mer is translated (Fr–>Eng) as “fruits of the sea.” Traditionally, it is served cold on a broad platter and composed of both raw and cooked aquatic invertebrates, including such delights as oysters, shrimp, crab, mussels, scallops and clams. This fruits de mer tartare is purely au naturel and does irreverently include a flat swimmer in the yellowfin tuna.

Oysters, with their reputed aphrodisiac potency, have been a favorite of both lovers and food lovers over time, with Roman emperors paying for them by their weight in gold. Romans were so enthralled by these marvelous mollusks that they sent droves of slaves to the shores of the English Channel to do their dirty work and gather them.

It goes without saying that the freshness of your seafood is absolutely paramount when served naked. The usual caveat applies—know thy fishmonger intimately.

FRUITS DE MER TARTARE WITH GINGER & AVOCADO

12 oysters
10 diver sea scallops
2 oz fresh yellowfin tuna fillet

2 T fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 T chives, minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lime
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Sliced fresh avocado
2-3 T champagne vinaigrette

Shuck oysters and place in medium bowl with their liquor. Rinse and dry scallops. Coarsely chop oysters, scallops and tuna, mix all together in the bowl and refrigerate for a few hours. Mix tartare with minced chives, chopped ginger, lemon and lime juice. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil.

Serve over fanned out carefully sliced avocado which has been kindly doused with champagne vinaigrette.

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(New Orleans food is) delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.
~Mark Twain

GW “Bushism” as an inspirational speaker? Is this reality or an eerie subconscious image? George Bush is now pawning himself off as America’s Top $19 Motivational Orator (and that offer goes for an entire office). It is Halloween season so this must be the black cat’s meow…adorned in a costume with a cheesy bright plaid jacket and bad shoes. Speak to us, oh wise one—but, someday please become acquainted with your cradle language, Mr. Bush.

It seems almost decades ago that former President Bush delivered a prime time address to the nation from Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans over two weeks after cruel Katrina churned the city and displaced a million people. He had just emerged from another of his lengthy cowboy role-playing-woodcutting sojourns at the Crawford ranch only to do a flyby peek out of a speeding Air Force One portal over the ravaged region.

On that evening in the French Quarter, displaying his usual feigned braggadocio, Bush arrogantly strode to a podium in Jackson Square to assure the people: “We will do what it takes.” Really John Wayne? To put it mildly, his speech was born of pretense and wholly lacked his promised action—what he did do was little to nothing. He flat dropped the ball and those less silver spooned than he were cruelly forgotten and left to suffer. Perhaps his legacy will suffer a similar fate.

The Big Easy, The Crescent City, The City That Care Forgot. Not quite like the more homogenous English settlements on the Massachusetts and Chesapeake Bays on the Atlantic side, New Orleans served as a cornucopian cultural gateway, where peoples from France, Spain and Africa melded disparate customs and cuisines. New Orleans has garnered and guarded its own special ways…ensuring that English was not the prevailing language, that Protestantism was scorned, public education unheralded, and democratic government untried. All the while its distinctive cuisine has reigned supreme.

A word on the word. Much like its city of origin, the word jambalaya has mysterious roots. Some suggest that it evolves from the French jambon (ham) coupled with a la (in the style of) while others assert that jambalaya comes from the Provençal word jambalaia, meaning a “mixture” or “blend” and also connoting a pilau (pilaf) of rice.

JAMBALAYA

2 t sea salt
2 t white pepper
2 t dry mustard
2 t gumbo filé
2 t cumin
2 t black pepper
2 t dried thyme

4 chicken leg thigh quarters
3 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil or duck fat

3/4 lb tasso or high quality smoked ham, diced into 1/4″ cubes
3/4 lb andouille sausage, cut into 1/4″ slices

1 C red bell peppers, chopped
1 C green or yellow peppers, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
1 C celery, chopped
1 1/2 C yellow onion, peeled and chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced

6 sprigs thyme, stemmed and finely minced
3 bay leaves
1 C canned San Marzano tomatoes, chopped with juice
1 T tomato paste
1/3 C dry white wine
1 t red pepper sauce
1/4 t hot pepper flakes

2 C long grain rice
4 C chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Green onions, chopped (for garnish)

Combine seasoning mix ingredients (first 7 items) in a small bowl, then rub over chicken. Retain any which is not used for later. In a large heavy Dutch oven, heat butter and olive oil or duck fat over medium high heat. Add chicken pieces and sauté until brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove, set aside and tent. Add the tasso and andouille, and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the peppers, onions and celery and sauté until the onions begin to soften and become translucent; then add leftover seasoning mix and garlic and cook several minutes more. Do not brown.

Now, add the tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, chicken stock, red pepper sauce, pepper flakes, bay leaves and thyme along with the tasso and andouille sausage. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and continue to cook until flavors are completely blended, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice until well coated. Reduce heat and simmer for about 8-10 minutes. Add the stock and chicken, bring the mixture to a gentle boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, over medium low heat until the rice is cooked al dente, about 15-20 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve garnished with green onions.

Santé, modération et raffinement (health, moderation and refinement)
~François Pierre de la Varenne (1615–1678)

A classic, elegant utility player on your culinary field…an old hand that retains keen relevance in today’s kitchens.

Conceived by heralded chef La Varenne as a tribute to his boss—Nicolas Chalon du Blé, Marquis d’Uxelles, maréchal de Franceduxelles are a paste-like reduction of finely minced mushrooms that have been slowly cooked with shallots and butter until all the liquid has evaporated. The Marquis d’Uxelles was the royal regional ruler of Chalon-sur-Saône, thought by some to be the birthplace of La Varenne.

La Varenne was a pioneer. He helped create and promote a revolutionary style of cookery that broke with the Italian model that had earlier so dominated French cuisine. Author of La Cuisinier françois (1651), the founding text of modern French cuisine, his writings essentially codified French gastronomy for the age of Louis XIV and even transported it into the modern era. Found in these hallowed pages are such classic techniques as bisques, béchamel, bouquet garni, fonds and reductions. Local herbs became the vogue, vegetables were prepared with care to retain freshness, and emphasis was squarely placed on preserving the integrity of ingredients instead of masking them as had been the practice previously.

La Varenne authored other pieces, including Le Pâtissier françois, which is generally considered the first comprehensive French work on making pastries.

Duxelles serve as a way to add mushroom essence to dishes that benefit from this intense and complex flavor. The uses for duxelles are manifold: meats, poultry, fish, eggs, frittatas, omelets, soups, pizzas, paninis and so on. As a twist, some cream can be added to the duxelles to form a sauce. There is even a relatively recent piece known as ficelle picarde—a thin savory crêpe rolled around a slice of ham, bathed in gruyère cheese, enveloped in duxelles, all finished gratinéed in a cream sauce.

While simple to make, duxelles take a bit of time; first to mince all those mushrooms and then cooking off all the liquid they naturally produce. The mushrooms do not have to be of the very top quality, and little ones, mixed sizes work just fine. Depending on which mushrooms you are using, trim off any woody parts of the stalks and save them for stocks and soups. Do not wash the mushrooms. Instead, wipe gently with a damp paper towel or brush to remove any dirt. For lighter hued duxelles, discard the stems, and use only the caps.

Duxelles can be frozen for a month or so and then defrosted the night before use.

DUXELLES

5 C mushrooms, cleaned and finely minced
1-2 small shallots, peeled and finely minced
3 T unsalted butter

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large sauté pan over a moderate heat, melt the butter and add the shallots. Sweat the shallots for about 5 minutes in the butter until soft and tender.

Add the finely minced mushrooms, a pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper. Stirring occasionally, cook over moderate heat until the mushrooms throw off their liquid and then reabsorb it, leaving no liquid in the pan. It may be necessary to add additional butter, and care must be taken that they do not get crisp. They must remain soft. This process can take up to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

When done the mushrooms will resemble a dark brown, mealy, almost paste-like texture. The quantity will also have been reduced by about half.

Use for your dish, or allow to cool, spoon them into a covered jar, then refrigerate or freeze.

Boasting a gastronomic history of some ten centuries, that Meditteranean morsel known as Catalan cuisine is stunningly simple and seasonal. A rich culinary tradition that predates medieval times, the first book of Catalan recipes was the Llibre de Sent Sovi (1324). In its own inimitable fashion, this cuisine has managed to incorporate foods that have arrived through contact with other cultures via trade, conquest or regional cross-pollination. Catalan food can boast of aristocracy and nobility yet remain rustic…where both complexity and modesty are revered.

CATALAN SPINACH

1/4 C raisins

2-3 T olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/4 C pine nuts
1/4 C dried apricots, thinly sliced

2 spinach bunches (about 2 lbs), stemmed, well rinsed and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place raisins in bowl. Cover with hot water and let soak 10 minutes in order to plump, then drain.

Heat olive oil in heavy large Dutch oven or a deep heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Discard garlic. Increase heat to medium high and add pine nuts until they are slightly brown. Then add raisins and apricots and toss to coat well. Add the spinach and sauté very quickly for a couple of minutes until it begins to wilt, stirring occasionally. Remember, the spinach will continue to wilt off the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Potato-Leek Soup

October 15, 2009

I appreciate the potato only as a protection against famine, except for that, I know of nothing more eminently tasteless.
~Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1825)

Potatoes abound in food lore. These subterranean tubers were even the partial cause of a significant global migration, a diaspora of sorts. In the early 19th century, potatoes were grown extensively in northern Europe and certainly in Ireland. It was almost solely relied upon as the Emerald Isle staple owing to low production costs coupled with the country’s then undeveloped economy. In hindsight, this inflexible reliance on a somewhat singular foodstuff turned out to be a calamitous gamble.

Beginning in 1845, a pervasive blight occurred thanks to a wind born fungus, Phytophthora infestans, spawning the infamous Irish Potato Famine which destroyed most of the crop. The consequences were dire, causing widespread devastation, hunger, death and social upheaval—rancid, rotting fields in all directions. In Celtic, this disaster is referred to as an Gorta Mór meaning “the great hunger.” Some estimates have placed the numbers at 750,000 Irish dead, while hundreds of thousands emigrated to other countries, many to the United States, in search of new beginnings.

And before I forget, M. Brillat-Savarin, pillorying potatoes? Since your passing chef B-S, French cuisine has been brimming with captivating potato dishes in almost endless (and eminently tasteful) preparations: anna, dauphinois, galette, gaufrette, purée, etc. As for your assertion that potatoes serve merely as a protection against famine, well…supra? An esteemed cook you were, but you missed this call.

We have had a recent spate of November-like damp and chill which provokes yearnings for comfort soups. My youngest is a potato soup addict, which makes the stars truly aligned for bowls of this rich, creamy starch.

Make sure to clean and rinse the leeks thoroughly to rid them of sand and dirt, then slice only the white and light green parts of the stalks. Should you choose to go rustic, do not peel the potatoes, cut them in larger chunks, and do not purée the soup entirely—perhaps just loosely mash them—all of which underscores earth and texture. Should the soup be a tad thick in the later stages, simply add small amounts of stock to your liking.

POTATO-LEEK SOUP

3 thick strips bacon, sliced into 1/2″ pieces for lardons (optional)

3 T unsalted butter
3 leeks, sliced in half lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 bay leaves
20 black peppercorns
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 C dry white wine
7 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 1/2 C chicken broth

1 C heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper (white or black) to taste

2 T chopped chives

Create a bouquet garni by wrapping bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme together in a piece of cheesecloth tied with twine.

Cook bacon pieces until crisp, then drain on paper towels.

Melt butter in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat then add onions, leeks and garlic. Cook, stirring, until they are limp and just slightly brown. Discard garlic cloves before they brown.

Add the wine and bouquet garni to the pot and bring to a gentle boil. Add potatoes to pot then pour in enough chicken broth to just barely cover the potatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes or so.

Remove the bouquet garni and, working in batches, purée the soup in a food processor or blender. Alternately, use an immersion blender, and purée the soup directly in the pot.

Add cream and lardons, stirring, and salt and black pepper to taste. Cook 5 minutes more over low heat, stirring frequently. Pour into bowls, garnish with chives and serve.

Bon appetit, Carter!

Learning never exhausts the mind.
~Leonardo da Vinci

One of history’s enduring geniuses. He was a great creative mind of the Italian Renaissance, hugely influential as an artist but also immensely talented as an engineer, scientist and inventor. Leonardo da Vinci was born near the town of Vinci in Tuscany in 1452, the illegitimate son of a local lawyer.

He has been considered one of the world’s most renowned sculptors, painters and architects producing such masterpieces as the cryptic mural of The Last Supper and the eternally smirking, shifty eyed Mona Lisa.

Da Vinci pondered, wrote and sketched freely on such eclectic subjects as geology, anatomy (studied in order to more accurately portray the human form), flight, gravity and optics, often flitting from subject to another on a single page, and writing in left-handed mirror script. He embarked on inventing the underlying basics for the bicycle, airplane, helicopter, and parachute some 500 years ahead of their time. And this blurb is giving him short shrift…just cannot wait to look in the mirror tomorrow morning and reflect on the accomplishments of the rest of us plebs. Da Vinci died on May 2, 1519, at Château of Cloux, near Amboise, France, where he was residing at the invitation of King Francois I, an avid patron of the arts.

This week, a forensic art investigator claimed a fingerprint found on what was presumed to be a 19th century German painting of a young woman and convinced leading experts that it is actually an original portrait by da Vinci now worth up to $150 million.

The painting of the woman—now identified as La Bella Principessa and believed to have been created around 1496 by the legendary Renaissance master—was purportedly purchased by a Canadian art collector in 2007 for the now modest sum of $19,000. A nearly sadistic uptick in value.

The fingerprint, believed to be of da Vinci’s middle or index finger, was found in the upper right hand corner of the work and matched one to a print from his unfinished painting St. Jerome in the Wilderness now housed in the Vatican museums. A rather precious and almost metaphorical fingertip (or footprint in today’s vernacular—why the shift in digits, extremities?). This stunning art world discovery would represent the first new painting attributed to da Vinci in more than a century.

Calf’s liver is a delicacy often served in Tuscany, da Vinci’s birthplace. Ergo, these truncated ramblings about the master and his fingers.

SAUTEED CALF’S LIVER

4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1″ pieces
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 T extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 lbs calf’s liver, sliced 1/4″ thick
2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
8 fresh sage leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 C chicken stock
1 T honey
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T capers, drained and rinsed

Chopped tarragon, for garnish

In a large skillet, sauté bacon and onion in olive oil until bacon is crisp and onions are tender and just slightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Wipe out skillet and add butter and olive oil. Add garlic to pan over medium high heat and allow to cook some, but do not burn, then remove. While it heats, season liver with salt and pepper. Add sage and liver to pan, in batches if necessary, and sauté for about 2 minutes a side over medium high heat. The liver is done when it is golden on surface but still pink on inside, about 3 minutes per side. As pieces cook, transfer them to serving platter which is tented by foil to keep warm.

Stir in the stock, honey and vinegar to the skillet and reduce until thickened and can coat a spoon. Add the capers to the sauce to warm. Arrange the liver on plates, top or base with onions and bacon and then drizzle the sauce over the top.

Garnish with tarragon or another fresh herb of choice. Serve with tagliatelle, polenta or home made egg noodles.

Buon appetito, Marco!

Couscous & Vinaigrette

October 7, 2009

A pantry staple, Israeli couscous is a small, round semolina pasta that should not be confused with the tiny, light yellow tinted North African couscous. After being shaped and rolled into small balls, these semolina granules are toasted in an oven, lending a distinctive nutty and buttery flavor and a pleasing firm yet gentle texture—little bursts in the mouth. The labor intensive sieving and toasting process also seals in the starches and reinforces the exterior, allowing these minute globules to absorb liquid without falling apart.

Israeli couscous serves as a light and fluffy standby carb to round out a meal and can also be the base for a luscious salad that can be customized in a myriad of ways. Season versatile. I have become fixated on these little pearls.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS SALAD

1 C extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T honey
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C zucchini, cubed, using only the outside skinned area
1/2 C red onion, diced, rinsed and dried
Fresh thyme leaves, minced

2-3 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked
2 C cherry tomatoes, halved

2 C Israeli couscous
1 1/2 C water
1 C chicken stock

3-4 T mint leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the red wine vinegar, mustard and honey, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil while continuously whisking to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

In a large heavy sauté pan, heat the olive oil, and add red onion, thyme and then the zucchini and sauté until cooked, yet al dente. Add the sweet corn and cherry tomatoes and cook more, but just briefly.

Bring water and stock to a lively boil in heavy pot. Add couscous and cook until al dente, about 8-10 minutes, then drain. Allow the couscous to cool and then toss with the vinaigrette, and finally the zucchini, red onion, corn, tomatoes and mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This salad tends to be even more flavorful after it sits for awhile in the frig.

Pourboire: Rincing the minced raw onions removes the pungent, sometimes overpowering, flavor. When onions are chopped, sulfurous compounds are released from the cell walls. Cold rinsing this sulfur away results in a more mellow product. Also, as always, the base vinaigrette can be varied to suit your tastes.