Beet Risotto

September 24, 2010

The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.
~Tom Robbins

Good food artfully crosses the full ambit of the senses: sights, scents, tastes, textures. Even the sounds of the kinetic kitchen, the quiet clamor of glasses and plates, and the hum and sometimes clamor of table commotion are part of the medium. These symphonic stimuli are perceived, processed and ordered by that vast network of cells, neurons, synapses, receptors and transmitters housed in our gray matter. They are basic impulses which are too often taken for granted. For some though, the eating experience differs…those that must see without sight, listen without hearing. Perception is gleaned from honing other senses to “see” that which cannot be “seen” and “hear” what cannot be “heard.” These so-called heightened senses are used to interpret the environment visually and aurally.

In an admittedly less than fluent fashion, this brings me to the advent of the latest iPhone gadget. The Color Identifier is an app which uses the iPhone camera to scan a subject(s) and then speaks the color. The visually impaired can click an image and then a color identifier made up of 6 hexadecimal digits reports the hues to the user. Sunsets/rises, flora, fauna, landscapes, paintings, autos, homes, clothing, you name it…from the banal to the spectacular. To one who is blessed with sight and is as technologically proficient as Moses, this seems almost surreally miraculous.

The earthiness of this vivid root couples well with the supple elegance of risotto. Frabjous fare.

ROASTED BEET RISOTTO

3 medium red beets, tops and roots trimmed off, and halved tranversely
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6-7 C chicken stock, as needed

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 cup yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 C arborio rice
3/4 C dry white wine

2 T unsalted butter
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F

Line a large baking dish with aluminum foil. In a large bowl, toss together the beets, splashes of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Place beets in the dish and cover snugly with foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake until tender and golden around edges, about 10 minutes more. Check throughout the latter part of the cooking process to see if the beets are cooked until tender, but still al dente. They are done when easily penetrated with a fork. Pour excess beet juice into a bowl and reserve. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel or slip off skins with paper towels and cut into 1/2″ cubes.

Pour stock into a pan and heat over low heat, keeping at a gentle simmer while you prepare the risotto.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium low heat. Add onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Add the rice and cook, until fully coated and semi-translucent. Add the wine and continue stirring until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add stock by ladles (about 1/2 cup) until each ladle has been absorbed, stirring gently yet constantly. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding the next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. There is a rhythm to the process which is not too fast and not too slow. About halfway through the process of ladling the stock into the rice, add the beets and a tablespoon or so of the reserved beet juice.

Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 18 minutes. Then, remove from heat and stir in the butter and parmigiano reggiano and season to taste with salt and pepper. The risotto should be smooth and creamy with the rice still retaining a slight al dente texture.

Divide the risotto among shallow soup bowls, grate some parmigiano reggiano over the top and serve.

Pourboire: Roast more beets than alloted in the recipe and refrigerate for salads, etc. later during the week.

Mussels with Fennel & Friends

September 13, 2010

Anyse maketh the breth sweter and swageth payne.
~Turner’s Herbal (1551)

(For the record, I am far from a licorice candy provocateur—whether red, black or other rainbow color or shape. My dislike for licorice candy is doubtless partly genetic and partly environmental. Yet, I have always adored the hints of anise and fennel in food. An infrequent pastis served straight up or on the rocks with a side carafe of water is rarely declined. So, to those licorice naysayers, please keep an open mind as kitchen affable anise and fennel are strikingly dissimilar to the candy species.)

Native to Egypt, anise (Pimpinella anisum) is cultivated for its carminative and aromatic seeds. Used by Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C., the herb was also well known to the Greeks and Romans. The Arabic term anysum became the Greek anison and then anisun in Latin.

An annual plant, anise grows to about 1 1/2 to 2 feet high and has feathery upper leaves with clusters of dainty, creamy-white flowers. After flowering, the ribbed seeds ripen and are harvested. The cultivated seeds have a slight hint of licorice in flavor and the aroma of fennel.

Pastis, the so-called milk of Provence, is anise hooch. An ambience setting French apéritif (apéro), pastis emerged a decade or so following the absinthe debacle and the ultimate prohibition on that wormwood spirit during midstride World War I. In recent years, more complex, creative and aromatic blends of pastis have appeared on the market.

Pastis changes its appearance from dark transparent yellow to milky soft yellow and cloudy when lightly diluted with water. Cooking with pastis, whether to deglaze or braise, can be subtly radiant.

STEAMED MUSSELS WITH FENNEL & PASTIS

3 lbs mussels, scrubbed and cleaned

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 fennel bulb, cored, trimmed and and thinly sliced
1 T fennel seeds

1 large, ripe tomato, cored, seeded and diced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup pastis, such as Ricard or Pernod
1 cup heavy cream
1 sprig fresh tarragon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

In a large heavy Dutch oven or pot, bring to medium and add olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots and sweat until for 2-3 minutes. Then, add fennel, fennel seeds, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the tomato, white wine, pastis, cream, tarragon sprig, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cook for about 1-2 minutes.

Finally add the mussels, and cover the pot. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, about 3-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and finish with chopped tarragon.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette or artisanal bread slices.

Creamed Corn

September 11, 2010

Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.
~Garrison Keillor

A summer synonymous symphony: corn, chile peppers, tomatoes. With cream? Muah!

A cereal grass domesticated by early indigenous mesoamerican tribes, corn (Zea mays) is better known as maize to other cultures for obvious linguistic reasons. Some of the earliest traces of meal made from corn date back about 7,000 years. Corn was initially brought back to the Old World by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who later introduced it throughout the Mediterranean basin and thence much of the remainder of the world. Now, maize is cultivated on every continent except Antarctica.

Add corn to those lofty innovations that native farmers introduced to Europeans —joining vanilla, chocolate, potatoes, peanuts, manioc, beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, and yams. What indigineous tribes received in return from the white man? Well…

CREAMED CORN WITH CHEVRE, SERRANO CHILES & TOMATOES

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
3 heirloom tomatoes, thickly sliced

2 T unsalted butter
1/2 medium shallot, peeled and minced
1 serrano chile pepper, stemmed, seeded, and minced

4 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked, kernels stripped
1 C heavy cream
Fresh rosemary sprig
3 T chèvre, crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 C pine nuts, freshly toasted
Fresh basil leaves, cut into ribbons

In a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over moderate heat. When shimmering but butter not browning, add thick tomato slices. Do not crowd, so cook the tomatoes in batches. Sear the tomatoes until slightly cooked, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over and repeat. Cook remaining tomatoes in the same fashion. The tomato slices should still be firm yet lightly browned. Set aside.

Melt butter in a heavy medium sauce pan over medium high heat. When it foams, add shallots and chiles. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add kernels, cream and rosemary sprig to the sauce pan and cook over medium heat. Cover and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes; then uncover and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in chèvre and ground pepper and continue cooking uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, about another 5 minutes. Remove and discard rosemary sprig.

Arrange tomato slices on a platter or individual small plates, and top with creamed corn, chèvre and chile mixture. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and fresh basil.

Pourboire: For a tingly and pungent change of pace, substitute a fine French bleu or Italian gorgonzola cheese for the chèvre; or stir in cooked bacon lardons in lieu of garnishing with pine nuts.

Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
~Gen. William C. Westmoreland

Vietnamese cuisine can be so simple in its essence, yet almost obsessively numinous.

Native to India, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a genus of numerous species of citrus flavored, tall perennial grasses. A ubiquitous herb in Asia, it is commonly used in south Indian, Vietnamese and Thai regional fare…and this makes little mention of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, et al. As a general rule, wherever radiant and aromatic tropical/equatorial fare is found so is lemon grass.

Rich in citral which is the active ingredient in lemon peel, fresh lemon grass is much preferred for its vibrant flavor over the dried variety. Lemon grass is deceptively pungent and should be added with care to enhance its lemon frangrance along with those subtle inflorescences of ginger and rose. The entire stalk can be put to use. So, the green blade can be sliced very finely and added to soups, and the fragrant bulbous portion can be bruised and/or minced. Bruising releases the lemon grass essences much as you would with smashed garlic. Firmly press down on the bulb end of the lemon grass with the broad side of a chef’s knife or pound lightly with a mallet. In this lemon grass chicken version, the fibrous outer membrane of the bulb is lubriciously peeled away to reveal the soft inner skin which is then bruised and minced.

LEMON GRASS CHICKEN (Sả Thịt Gà)

3 T nước mắm Phú Quốc* (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 T honey
1 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces

3 T raw cane sugar
1/4 C water
1 1/2 T chicken stock

3 T peanut or canola oil
3 fresh stalks of lemon grass, tender white inner bulb only, bruised minced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely minced

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
Chopped, roasted peanuts, for garnish

In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, chilied soy sauce, garlic, and honey. Then, add the chicken and stir to coat well.

In a small skillet, mix sugar with the water and cook over medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Cook, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms. Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken stock. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat wok over high heat, add peanut oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the lemon grass, shallot, garlic and chiles and stir fry until fragrant. Add the chicken and darkened sugar mixture and sauté until chicken is cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Transfer to a bowl and serve with steamed jasmine or white rice. Top with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

*Pourboire: both nước mắm Phú Quốc and nước măn chay pha sản are available at asian markets. Phú Quốc is an idyllic island off southwestern Vietnam mainland, resplendent with verdant interior jungles, squeaky white sand and cobalt seas. The island is also famed for nước mắm which is crafted from a particular anchovy there. On the bottle, look for the words nước mắm nhi which signifies that it is crafted from the first extraction, not unlike the first pressing of extra virgin olive oil.

The lion and the calf will lay down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.
~Woody Allen

Veal is the meat of a young calf. A calf is defined as a young bovine of either sex that has not reached puberty (circa 9 months), and has a maximum weight of 750 pounds. Before slaughter, a veal calf–usually a male–is raised until about 16-18 weeks old and weighing up to 450 pounds.

Now, should I really weigh in on this blood feud between veal supporters and foes? Makes you just exhale, much like when trying to calmly suggest to a clueless, raving Sarah Palin that the combined effects of a decade of unfunded tax cuts ($2.5 trillion), two prolonged regional wars ($1.3 trillion) and the worst economic slump since the Great Depression (up to $1 trillion in bailout funds) explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years. And God forbid that you remind her that almost all of this inglorious work took place on princeling W’s watch or dare divulge dark Dick’s dictum that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”

Today’s Word for the Day struck Sarah’s speaking and ghost written skills right between her bespectacled eyes: anacoluthia (n.) the lack of grammatical sequence or coherence, esp. in a sentence. A syntactic construction in which an element is followed by another that does not agree properly. That wolf shootin’ moose eatin’ basketball playin’ governor quittin’ mama, Sarah Anacoluthia. Atta girl! Whew.

I could go on, but back to food. Not a meat without controversy, veal consumption was resoundingly boycotted in markets nationwide decades ago. And this, no less, was in the pre-internet world. Gruesome photographs of formula-fed veal calves tethered in crates where they could not turn or rotate appeared across the country. Sales plummeted and really never fully recovered. This fiscal slump did sometimes correlate with changes in the way veal was raised, pastured, housed and slaughtered. More humane and less objectionable methods were adopted. Some farmers allowed calves to roam pastures with their mothers while chemical, antibiotic and steroid free. Other producers disposed of those bad pub crates, raising them in barn pens where they mingle with other calves, feeding them a mix of milk replacement and grain.

Doubtfully and naturally, these changes will not placate vegans or vegetarians who find the eating of meat simply abhorrent. To some, human carnivores are unrepentant sinners, pure and simple. To those, I might humbly suggest you skip the veal and drizzle the vinaigrette(s) over vegetables. To me, hell awaits.

“Veal” is a word derived from the Middle English veel, from Old French, from Latin vitellus, the diminutive of vitulus, or “calf.”

It should go without saying that either or both of the tomato and olive vinaigrettes can lissomely grace other meats, poultry, fish or greens. As always, please let your kitchen mind wander.

GRILLED VEAL & TWO VINAIGRETTES (OLIVE & TOMATO)

4 – 1 3/4″ thick bone-in veal loin chops
Extra virgin olive oil
1 T fresh rosemary, stemmed and finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Olive Vinaigrette

1 1/2 C Kalamata and Cerignola olives, pitted and finely chopped
1 T medium shallot, peeled and finely minced
1/2 T garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 t anchovies, rinsed, dried and finely minced
1 T Dijon mustard
1/4 C sherry vinegar

1 C extra virgin olive oil

Stir together the olives, shallot, garlic, anchovies, mustard, and sherry vinegar. Then slowly drizzle in olive oil while vigorously whisking until smooth and emulsed.

Tomato Vinaigrette

1 1/2 C heirloom cherry or grape tomatoes, chopped
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 T capers, rinsed and drained
1/4 C sherry vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 C extra virgin olive oil

2-3 T basil leaves, cut into ribbons

Stir together the tomatoes, shallot, capers and sherry vinegar. Then slowly drizzle in olive oil while vigorously whisking until smooth and emulsed. Stir in the basil.

While stoking the grill, prepare the vinaigrettes and allow the veal to reach room temperature. Also, mix the olive oil with the rosemary. Season the veal chops with salt and black pepper and drizzle generously with the rosemary olive oil.

Once the vinaigrettes are prepared, assess the grill which should reach medium high. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count how long you can keep it there before the pain demands you retract it in around 3 seconds.

Grill the veal chops for 5-6 minutes or so on each side for medium rare. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the veal chops and the heat of the grill. Let the chops rest for at least 5 minutes, then spoon a base of the olive vinaigrette on each plate. Rest the veal chops on the olive vinaigrette and spoon the tomato vinaigrette atop of the meat.