I wasn’t kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth.
~Chico Marx

As a late teen first visiting Paris, I was struck (even smitten) by the provocative public displays of affection on the streets, in parks and cafés. Passionate and intimate — open mouthed, deep kisses, with cuddles and caresses. Face dwellers. Blissfully awesome came to mind then and now. In the puritanical States though, you are ridiculed, derided for such shameless ardor. Frowned upon here, public kissers are brusquely advised to “get a room.” I mean, God forbid you be so deeply enamored with each other that you really do not give a damn about those leering, envious “get a life” voyeurs. Just that kind of “refulgent” act that no doubt makes Sarah Palin feel “squirmish” (sp?). Maybe she should stick to more basic, monosyllabic words, like “dolt.”

Thankfully, face whiffing and canoodling in public venues have now become national pasttimes in Mexico. In 2009, nearly 40,000 people gathered at Zocalo Square in Mexico City to break the tally for the most people kissing at one moment. This Valentine’s Day simultaneous smooching was dubbed Besame Mucho or “Kiss Me A Lot”. The intense, overt sensuality of young and old has continued forward with lovers inveterately kissing and ardently embracing in and near squares and promenades in Mexico’s most populus city.

Ah, to create a culture of sweet, tender mercies with those ever expressive, soft yet hot kisses…panochitas.

While my preference would be fresh tomatoes or tomatillos or both, the earthy sundried ones are a luscious substitute in the off season. Then, fast forward to late summer and replace the sundried ones with home grown or farmers’ market beauties—even heirlooms. A third option is to boil about a half dozen fresh, husked and washed, medium tomatillos in salted water until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain well and zip in a blender or food processor.

GUACAMOLE & SUNDRIED TOMATOES

1/2 medium white onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 serrano chile, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
1/3 C sundried tomatoes, chopped
1/2 C loosely packed, chopped fresh cilantro leaves

4 medium large ripe avocados
Sea salt
Fresh lime juice

Queso fresco crumbled, for garnish
Cilantro leaves, for garnish
Radishes, halved and thinly sliced, for garnish

In a medium bowl, mix the onion, garlic and chiles with the sundried tomatoes and cilantro.

Close to when you are going to serve, halve the avocados lengthwise by cutting from stem to stern and back again, then twist the two halves apart. Dislodge the pit with the blade and scoop the avocado flesh into a bowl with a spoon. Roughly mash the avocados into a coarsely textured, thick mash. You probably want some chunk.

Taste and season with salt and lime juice to suit your personal preferences.

Cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the guacamole and refrigerate until ready to serve. Mound the guacamole in a serving dish, and serve with queso fresco, cilantro and radishes.

On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that ninety-five years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began. In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.
~Barack Obama, April 24, 2010

Apricots were originally cultivated in China or India, depending on the source. They arrived in Europe through Armenia, which explains the scientific name Prunus armenaica. While this small, densely canopied tree first arrived in Virginia in the early 18th century, its appearance in the Spanish missions of California several decades later marked the real arrival on North America’s center stage. As the climate on the west coast is perfectly suited to apricot culture, these pastelled gems are grown primarily in sunny orchards there.

A drupe similar to a small peach, flesh tones range from yellow to orange, and even tinged red on the side most exposed to the sun. A single seed is enclosed in a hard stony shell which has three ridges running down one side. The skin can be glabrous or display short pubescent hairs—some catholic priests’ dreams. (Just this week, northwest Jesuits agreed to pay $166 million to more than 500 victims of sexual abuse, many of whom were American Indians and Alaska Natives who were debased decades ago at boarding schools and on the safe grounds of remote villages.)

Apricots are a good source of vitamins A and C, and also provide needed dietary fiber and potassium.

In the mood, once again, for my luscious little pearly friends known as Israeli couscous. This version is chocked with texture: the distinct pop of couscous, the nutty crunch of almonds, the tender chew of sweet apricots and currants. An apotheosis when nestled up to roasted or grilled meats.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS WITH APRICOTS, ALMONDS & CURRANTS

Sea salt
2 C Israeli couscous

Extra virgin olive oil
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 t cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1/2 C sliced almonds, toasted
1 C chicken stock

1/2 C dried apricots, diced into 1/2″ pieces
1/4 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained
4 scallions, both white and green parts, cut thin on the bias
Fresh mint, minced

Bring a saucepan or pot of generously salted cold water to a boil over high heat. Add the Israeli couscous and cook until cooked through, about 6-7 minutes. Strain from the water and reserve.

Coat a large sauté pan with olive oil. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper and cum, then bring to medium high heat. After a few minutes, add the almonds to toast them in the oil. When the garlic is golden and aromatic, remove from the pan and discard. Do not brown or the garlic will become bitter. Add the cooked couscous and chicken stock. Season with salt and cook until the stock has reduced by half. Add the apricots, currants, scallions and mint. Stir to combine well and serve.

Gratin Dauphinois Revived

March 21, 2011

Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.
~Victor Hugo

They say spring sprang yesterday.

Equinox is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The vernal equinox officially occurs when the center of the sun crosses the equator. But, be not dissuaded by the tale that on the vernal equinox the length of day is exactly equal to the length of night. Daytime to nighttime equality actually falls before the vernal equinox and likewise after the autumnal equinox.

For most venues on earth, there are two distinct days per year when the length of day and night are closest to being equal; those days are referred to as equiluxes, not to be confused with equinoxes. In a nutshell, equinoxes are points in time, but equiluxes are full days. An equinox happens each year at two precise moments in time—rather than two whole days—when there is a location on the earth’s equator and the center of the sun is observed vertically overhead.

To complicate matters, the earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight when approaching the horizon, so the sun appears to be above the horizon a few minutes earlier than actuality. Therefore, on the vernal equinox, the daylight hours are actually longer than the length of time between when the sun crosses the horizon at dawn and when the sun crosses the horizon at sunset. Those factors all combine to make the day of the equinox not the day when we have twelve hours each of light and darkness.

The vernal equinox also brings spring leeks to mind. Always, maybe too often, thinking food. Those sweet, green and white alliums that are planted in the fall and left in the frigid soil until the first thaw. Because farmers usually mound soil and mulch over leeks to protect them against cold temperatures, they tend to be grittier than their summer cousins. So, take care to clean them assiduously. Trim the roots, peel away the translucent outer layers and slice the leeks in half lengthwise. Wash well under cold running water.

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS WITH MUSHROOMS & LEEKS

1 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Butter, unsalted

2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, then sliced thinly crosswise
8 oz crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 T unsalted butter, divided
2 t dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs baking potatoes, preferably russets, peeled and very thinly sliced

2+ C grated gruyère cheese
1+ C heavy cream

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 F

Melt butter 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced leeks, thyme, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and golden, about 5-7 minutes. Set leeks aside in a bowl. Wipe skillet with a paper towel.

Melt an additional 2 tablespoons butter in the same skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced mushrooms, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are tender, about 8 minutes. Set mushrooms aside in a bowl.

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin/baking dish with a crushed garlic clove, and then lightly butter the dish with the end of a stick of butter. Arrange one half of the sliced potatoes slightly overlapped in a single layer. Strew cooked leeks and mushrooms over the potatoes. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add a second layer of potatoes with cheese, cream and season again with salt and pepper. Lightly grate some fresh nutmeg on the top layer to finish.

Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until crisp and golden, about 1 hour. Should the top begin to brown too rapidly, simply cover with aluminum foil. Remove from oven, let rest for at least 10 minutes, and then serve.

Beet, Leek & Fennel Soup

March 19, 2011

A cool, rainy weekend, and our NCAA basketball tourney brackets are freely bleeding with early round exits. So, seems an ideal day for an earthy, crimson soup.

Roasting the beets teases out their natural sugars, and the wispy green fennel fronds lightly strewn over a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream breaks the frank red monotony.

BEET, LEEK & FENNEL SOUP

6 medium red beets
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Water

3 medium leeks, rinsed, dried and thinly sliced
1/4 t fennel seeds
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, reserving fronds for garnish
1/4 C water
3 C chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
1 T freshly squeezed orange juice
1 T red wine vinegar

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Fennel fronds
Crème fraîche or sour cream

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, lightly drizzle the beets with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Pour a small amount of water in the dish and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes to one hour, depending on the size of the beets. They are done when easily pierced with a fork. Cool, then peel beets. Cut a single beet into 1″ matchsticks for garnish and chop the remaining beets.

In a large heavy saucepan heat oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and cook leeks with fennel seeds, stirring, until softened, about 15 minutes. Add sliced fennel and water and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until fennel is very soft, about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in chopped beets, broth, bay leaf, thyme sprig, orange juice and red wine vinegar. Simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. In a food processor or blender purée soup in batches, transferring it as puréed to another saucepan. Gently heat in saucepan and salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with beet matchsticks, crème fraîche or sour cream and fennel fronds.