Sauce Béchamel

November 25, 2009

Sauces comprise the honor and glory of French cookery.
~Curnonskey

One of the mother sauces (sauces mères). Some claim that Catherine de Medici’s skilled Tuscan cooks imported Béchamel to France from Italy in the 16th century. Others assert that the father of French haute cuisine, chef Francois Pierre de la Varenne created this sauce during King Louis XIV’s reign. It has been fairly firmly speculated that the sauce was named after a courtier, Louis de Béchameil, marquis de Nointel who was maître d’hôtel (major domo) of that same sun king, Louis Roi—perhaps Europe’s longest ruling monarch (1643-1715).

Crème, Mornay, and Soubise are compound sauces derived from Béchamel as a base.

Clarified butter means the milk solids and water have been removed from the butter. Use unsalted butter and melt it slowly in a saucepan over low heat without stirring. Let the heated butter sit still so that the milk solids and water separate from the butter fat. Skim the foam from the surface. Remove from the heat and let stand a few minutes until the milk solids settle to the bottom. Carefully pour the clear yellow liquid (the clarified butter) into a container, leaving the milk solids in the bottom of the saucepan.

Béchamel can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week.

BECHAMEL SAUCE

5 T clarified butter
5 T flour

3 C whole milk, brought to a simmer in advance

1/2 C veal or chicken stock
2 T yellow onion, finely chopped
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
Pinch of nutmeg
Sea salt and white pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan, add the clarified butter and the flour. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes to make a blond roux. Add the milk and whisk until smooth. Then add the stock, onions, thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, salt and pepper and simmer gently for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Strain through a cheesecloth.

The plan is to soon discuss that heralded yet often untold and misdirected story called Thanksgiving. Some mental notes have even been collected. As if you truly care. This culinary holiday has been historically butchered ever since Abraham Lincoln proclaimed turkey day a national holiday in October, 1863—the birthplace of and starting point for “surviving the holidays?” It has always been mystifying how Thanksgiving could be established right during the chaos of the Civil War…sandwiched between the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga and during the siege of Knoxville. A siege and a feast do not seem overly compatible.

I would surmise that Hallmark and other marketing and retailer wunderkinder played a central role in that ill conceived nexus between this week and Xmas. “Black Friday” 3 days henceforth? Sounds like a dark pilgrimage which is rather faux.

Before I launch into the Plymouth Rock conquistadors of 1621 A.D., this hasty side dish will have to suffice.

SWISS CHARD & SHALLOTS, ET. AL.

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 plump fresh garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 t red pepper flakes

3 bunches Swiss chard, rinsed well and dried
3 T apple cider vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut off and discard chard stems and any tough center ribs. Thinly slice leaves into ribbons.

Heat olive oil in a heavy, large skillet over medium high heat. Add shallot, garlic and pepper flakes and cook, stirring often, until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add chard, vinegar, salt and pepper, then continue cooking, tossing often, until wilted and softened, about 3-4 minutes.

Spanakopita(s)

November 22, 2009

Knowledge is the food of the soul.
~Plato

Some purists firmly claim they should be called spanakopitakia.

Having made too many of these classic, delicate Greek fingerlings one day I felt obliged to share. Although spanakopita (σπανακόπιτα) prep is time consuming, once done, you can hide a bag of these delectable deltas in the freezer. When you yearn a last minute or midnight meal, simply brush them with melted butter and slip them in the oven.

SPANAKOPITA

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots, peeled and minced
1 lb fresh spinach, washed, drained, well dried and coarsely chopped
2 T fresh mint, coarsely chopped
2 C feta cheese
1/2 t freshly grated nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, beaten, at room temperature

16 sheets phyllo dough, thawed if frozen

8 T unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 F

Heat olive oil in heavy skillet over moderate heat, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until transluscent. Then cook the spinach, stirring, until wilted and tender, usually about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat and cool, about 10 minutes. Squeeze spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, drain, dry, then coarsely chop. Transfer to a bowl and stir in mint, feta, nutmeg, salt and pepper and then incorporate the beaten egg.

Melt 1 stick of butter in a small saucepan, then cool to room temperature and set aside.

Cover phyllo stack with a dampened tea towel.

Gingerly peel one phyllo sheet from stack, arrange on a work surface long ways and brush with some butter down the length of the sheet on one side. Place 1 tablespoon of the filling at end closest to you, and then fold sheet in half lengthwise. Begin folding into triangle (like a flag) brushing with butter after each fold.

Put triangle, seam side down, on a large baking sheet and brush top with butter. Repeat in the same manner, using all of phyllo.

Bake triangles in middle of oven until golden brown, 15-20 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool slightly.

Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within.
~Franz Kafka

Often, the divine derives from the decomposed. At least so say most funeral directors.

(You are aware that Dexter was preceded by decades—over a century ago—by Franz Kafka, right?)

Fungi are members of a group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts, molds and my beloved mushrooms. Eukaryotic, you say? Derived from the Greek for “noble” or “true” combined with “nut” (an intriguing match), eukaryotes are organisms whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes. A single eukaryotic cell contains membranous compartments in which specific metabolic activities take place.

Decomposers that feed on the remains of dead plants and animals, fungi are taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants, animals, protists and bacteria. Not green for lack of chlorophyll, they have cell walls that contain chitin, unlike the cell walls of plants, which are composed of cellulose.

From a genetic view, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Animals and fungi share a common evolutionary history, and the limbs of their genealogical tree branched away from plants over one billion years ago. The common ancestor of animals and fungi actually was a protist—a single celled creature that very likely possessed both animal and fungal characteristics. It is surmised that this precursor spent part of its early life cycle in a membranous and mobile form resembling a human sperm, and then morphing into its next stage by growing a stiff chitin cell wall more resembling the mushroom that graces our tables.

All murk aside, this is a silky, luxuriant soup worthy of your spoon. If you opt for a more meaty, handsome texture, simply omit the blending stage and keep the mushrooms sliced.

CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP

1 ounce dried mushrooms (porcini, morels, or shitakes)
1 C chicken or vegetable stock, heated

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter

1/2 C shallots, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 T fresh thyme, finally minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/2 lb shitake mushrooms cleaned, stemmed and sliced
1/2 lb oyster mushroomes, cleaned, stemmed and sliced

1/4 C Madeira
1/4 C all purpose flour

5 C chicken or vegetable stock
1-2 C heavy cream

Chives
Truffle oil

Soak the dry mushrooms in 1 cup of warm stock about 30 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve, along with the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed.

Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and then add the shallots, garlic, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes, until the shallots are soft and translucent but not browned.

Turn heat to medium high and add the sliced mushrooms, thyme, bay leaves and sage. Cook mushrooms to exude liquid until they become quite soft, about for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add Madeira and flour and stir constantly for around 5 minutes.

Add the chicken stock and the dried mushrooms along with the soaking water. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove the herbs, then add the cream and working in batches, puree the soup in a food processor or an immersion blender until smooth. Return to the pot and keep at a very low simmer until ready to serve.

Garnish with chives and drizzle lightly with truffle oil.

The flute is not an instrument that has a good moral effect; it is too exciting.
~Aristotle

Flautas (derived from Spanish for “flute”) are simply made by tightly wrapping a tortilla around a savory filling and then deep frying the tightly formed cylinder. Now, a soft debate exists about differentiating a classic flauta from a taquito…with some asserting that flautas are made with larger (hence longer) flour tortillas while standard taquitos are made with smaller (hence shorter) corn tortillas. Others believe the flauta v. taquito nomenclature itself is blurred and has little to do with the finished product. For example, flautas are often cooked using corn and flour tortillas. With all due respect to the food gods and as often holds true in life, names seem to end in a distinction without a difference.

With a touch of shame, I do admit to some diversion. Customarily, flautas (or taquitos) are made with shredded chicken, so this recipe veers some. But, should you wish to go traditional—simply use chicken from succulent roasted, braised or chicken-rescued-from-broth pulled into shreds and shards for the filling.

FLAUTAS WITH SALSA VERDE & SALSA ROJA

6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Dried oregano

Zest of 1 lime
1/2 C fresh lime juice
4 fresh plump garlic cloves, halved and crushed
2 jalepeño chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced or finely minced
2 T apple cider vinegar
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1 cinnamon stick, halved
Cilantro, roughly chopped

Corn torillas
Canola oil, for cooking

Season the chicken pieces with salt, pepper and oregano. Combine 8 remaining marinade ingredients in a bowl and then toss well with chicken in a heavy plastic bag. Seal well and place in refrigerator overnight.

Salsa Verde (Green Salsa)

1 pound tomatillos (10-12 medium), husked and rinsed
8 large garlic cloves, peels left on
1-2 jalepeño chiles, stemmed
1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered
1 C cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Sea salt

Preheat broiler

Spread tomatillos, garlic, onions and chiles on a baking sheet and put under the broiler. Broil for about 5 minutes, until you see blackened, charred spots on the vegetables. Flip them over and roast until they become darkened, juicy, and soft.
Transfer these roasted ingredients and some of the cilantro into a food processor, and blend into a coarse purée. Add a little bit of water if necessary to attain your desired consistency. Add salt to taste, and the rest of the cilantro leaves.

Salsa Roja (Red Salsa)

4 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
6 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 pound (10 to 12 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed
Sea salt
Sugar or honey, about 1/2 teaspoon (optional)

Preheat broiler

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chiles, stirring for 1 minute, until they are very aromatic. Take care not to overcook as they can become bitter. Transfer to a bowl, cover with hot water and rehydrate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, roast the tomatillos and garlic on a baking sheet under a hot broiler until the tomatillos are soft, even blackened in spots, about 5 minutes per side, and the garlics are soft. Cool, remove skins from garlics.

Drain the chiles well and add to the tomatillos and garlic, then transfer the ingredients to a blender or food processor. Blend into a coarse purée, then scrape into a serving dish. If necessary, during the blending process stir in enough water to attain desired consistency. Season with salt to your liking.

Flautas

Bring chicken in marinade to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and pound with a mallet until thin. In a heavy skillet, saute the chicken thighs for only a couple of minutes per side until just medium rare, then thinly slice.

Heat heavy, deep skillet with canola oil 2″ deep. Once hot (about 375 F) add corn tortilla for a few seconds to soften and then drain on paper towels. Lay in thinly sliced chicken, roll and secure with with a toothpick. Gently place back into the hot oil and cook until light golden brown; turn and finish cooking. Let cool some and remove toothpicks. Serve with salsa verde, salsa roja and crema or sour cream–all in separate bowls—or spread artfully on an open plate topped with the flautas that are sprinkled with crumbled queso fresco.

Sesame Noodles

November 13, 2009

Simsim! (Open Sesame!)
~Ali Baba, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights

A sprightly small app, a light side, or midnight fare—even savored as the sun is rising. Then, they could be bowls of noodles delicately chopsticked while seated lotus style amongst warm sheets with skin bathed in afterglows…or at least one disappointing dish which should leave sooner rather than later and be shortly forgotten. So much depends on company and chemistry.

Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a flowering plant native to sub-Saharan Africa which is cultivated for its multicolored, oleaginous seeds which grow in pods. The pods eagerly burst open when they reach maturity. Sesame seeds have been revered for centuries and their uses in the kitchen are legion, almost lacking in regional and cultural boundaries.

While the prep is simple and open to rendition, there are layered flavors of thin egg noodles in a piquancy of peanuts, biracial sesames, vinegar and chiles. You can toss in ways as suit your passion(s) and palate(s).

COLD SESAME NOODLES

1 lb thin rice noodles (vermicelli shaped)
6 T sesame oil

1/4 C peanut oil
8 green onions, discarding greens, thinly sliced on the diagonal
2″ piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
4 plump and fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 t sambal oelek (chili paste)
1 t dried red chile pepper flakes
1 T honey
1 T light brown sugar
3/4 C creamy peanut butter
4 T rice wine vinegar
6 T soy sauce
1/4 C chicken stock, already heated

1 T white sesame seeds, toasted
1 T black sesame seads, toasted
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into matchstick juillenne
Fresh cilantro leaves, stemmed and coarsely chopped

Cook the noodles in a large, heavy pot of boiling unsalted water until barely tender and still firm. Drain immediately and rinse with cold water until cool to halt the cooking process. Drain the noodles again and transfer to a wide bowl. Toss with the sesame oil, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

In a small saucepan, heat the peanut oil over medium low. Add the green onions, ginger, garlic, and chili paste. Cook and stir for a minute until soft and fragrant. Whisk in the chile flakes, honey, brown sugar, peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, and stock until the sugar is dissolved and the peanut butter has smoothed out. Toss the noodles with the peanut sauce and sesame seeds until well coated. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Garnish with the cucumbers and cilantro.

Zestful Sweet Spuds

November 12, 2009

Said Aristotle unto Plato,
“Have another sweet potato?”
Said Plato unto Aristotle,
“Thank you, I prefer the bottle.”

~Owen Wister

A moist, spicy autumn darling. The sweet, dense flesh of sweet potatoes is enhanced by the variegated zing of coconut milk, curry paste, nutmeg, cinnamon…and that hint of orange on orange on the finish. Something about redheads.

MASHED SWEET POTATOES WITH COCONUT, CURRY
& ORANGE ZEST

4 lbs sweet potatoes
4 T unsalted butter

3/4 C coconut milk
1 T Thai red curry paste
1 T honey
1/2 T light brown sugar
1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t ground cinnamon

Sea salt and freshly ground black (or white) pepper

Zest of 1 orange

Preheat oven to 400 F

Prick potatoes with a fork in several places. Bake potatoes until quite tender, about 1 hour. When cool enough to handle, peel and mash well with butter.

Meanwhile in a medium heavy saucepan, heat coconut milk with curry paste, honey, brown sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon over low heat and whisk until well mingled. Stir enough coconut/curry mixture into mashed sweet potatoes to achieve the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Immediately stir in orange zest and serve.