The finest clothing made is a person’s skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.
~Mark Twain

The delicious fig has often borne the burden of negative connotation. Fig leaf even carries a pejorative metaphorical sense of covering up behaviors or thangs that are embarrassing or shameful…the implication being that the cover is merely a token gesture and the reality of what lies underneath is all too obvious. Who can forget the biblical tale of Adam and Eve strategically covering their god given genitals in that original act of christian expurgation? Of course, none of us ever deigned to imagine what lurked beneath those leaves.

Prim and proper, yet highly skilled and insanely face paced, badminton now wants to lift the proverbial fig leaf some. The sport is engulfed in a controversy incited by an officially sanctioned dress code. In a effort to revive flagging interest, the World Federation has mandated that elite women must now wear more revealing skirts or dresses as many now compete in shorts or baggy tracksuit pants. In a typical “sex sells” approach, the Federation in conjunction with the marketing firm Octagon has decided that more flesh translates into a larger following. “We’re not trying to use sex to promote the sport, we just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular,” naïvely remarked a deputy president of the Federation to the New York Times. It comes as little surprise that the Badminton World Federation is male dominated.

The reaction to requiring more skin while not universal has been almost zealously critical. Those offended who seek to have the rule abolished simply argue that the governing body of a sport decreeing a “less is better” clothing code for women smacks of overt sexism. Seems a point well made. Perhaps the governing board should compel male shuttlecockers to be barechested in speedos and women to be adorned in skimpy tops and thongs—now that would draw some throngs.

It just seems clothing optional should be a personal choice.

FIG COMPOTE

1/2 C turbinado (raw) sugar
1/2 C unprocessed local honey
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 t vanilla extract
2 C cold water

2 C dried black mission or mediterranean figs, stemmed and halved

1+ C premium balsamico di Modena

Place the sugar, honey, lemon zest, vanilla and water in a small saucepan over moderately low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Put the figs in a medium bowl, pour the syrup over the figs and allow to cool for about 4 hours.

Drain and discard the syrup, then put the figs in an airtight container and add enough balsamic vinegar to cover well. Cover and refrigerate for another 4 hours.

Serve over a fine ice cream of choice or topped with marscapone or freshly whipped cream—even gracing pork or lamb dishes.

P.S. The BWF announced Sunday that it was scrapping the rule that would have forced women to wear skirts or dresses in elite competition.

The day hunger disappears, the world will see the greatest spiritual explosion humanity has ever seen.
~Federico Garcia Lorca

On a somber note, every 5 seconds a child dies of hunger related causes in this world. If you find that less than morally disturbing, skip over these thoughts and move on to the Betty Crocker part.

It is time to move beyond this stagnant state of denial about regional and worldwide food shortages. The ever bountiful agricultural economy of the last half-century that was taken for granted is drawing to a close. A new era has arrived where food scarcity shapes global politics and may well lead to upheaval and conflict. While the world’s burgeoning population has created a marked increased in the demand for food, climate changes and irrigation woes have made it nearly impossible to boost production to meet these needs. This may not happen tomorrow, but it will likely paint a bleak picture for our youth and their progeny. Hungry and thirsty people will by nature contentiously compete, protest, riot and even wage war to feed and water their offspring. And yes, Virginia, this will affect Kansas too.

In an article entitled The New Geopolitics of Food which appears in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, author Lester Brown explores how food shortages drive geopolitics and create volatility. The forecast appears dire and reeks of unrest.

Begin with basic demand: soaring world population growth. Each year, the world must feed an additional 80 million people, most of them in developing countries. The global population has almost doubled since 1970 and is projected to reach an ominous 9 billion by mid-century. Quite a few mouths to feed. Several billion people are meanwhile entering the “middle class” and trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. These new yuppies create additional demand for grains to feed these animals.

Next, consider supply: supply and production are simply lagging behind the booming demand for food. The reasons for shortfall are manifold, including reduced water tables, depleted wells and aquifers, irrigation overpumping, eroding soils, and the ever-present consequences of climate change. Consider that more than half of the world’s population lives in countries where water tables are falling; that for a temperature rise of every 1 C farmers can expect a 10% decline in optimal grain yields; that coincidentally the politically roiling Middle East is the first region where grain production has begun to decline due to water shortages; that new deserts are being created due to soil erosion and mismanagement, undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s crops; that without consulting locals, nearly nearly 140 million acres of land and water rights grabs have been secretly negotiated allowing more affluent countries to grow grain for themselves in far away lands. Such warning lights on our collective dashboard should not go unheeded.

The pervasive rich-or-poor-each-one-for-themselves mentality which forsakes global energy, water, soil, population and climate change policies directly causes food insecurity and destabilizes broad swathes of the world. A form of humans as pestilence. Sorely needed are cohesive narratives coupled with conflict-resistant agricultural strategies shared by all. A risk rife geopolitics of food scarcity has emerged and must be earnestly addressed before regional and global breakdowns are at hand…and not until “once upon at time, long ago,” right?

So, chickpeas seem not just timely, but regionally apt.

CHICKPEAS & OLIVES

1 1/2 C dried chickpeas
Equal parts of chicken or vegetable stock and water, to cover
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and gently smashed
1 bay leaf

3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C green (such as Lucques or Picholines) and black (such as Kalamata or Niçoise) olives, pitted and roughly chopped
Several sprigs fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
Zest and juice of 1 fresh lemon
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Soak the chickpeas in a bowl of cold water overnight. Drain and rinse well, then put in a heavy saucepan with the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Just cover the chickpeas, with equal parts of stock and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until very tender, about 45 minutes. Drain, discarding the used onion, garlic and bay leaf.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat, and briefly cook the garlic, about 30 seconds. Add the chickpeas, salt, and pepper, to taste, only to heat through. Smash some with a potato masher, leaving some chickpeas whole for looks. Remove from the heat, and stir in the olives, tarragon, and lemon zest. Stir in lemon juice, to taste.

Drizzle with olive oil, and serve as a base for roasted, sautéed or grilled fish, chicken or meat.

POLENTA WITH CHICKPEAS & LEMON

1 1/2 C dried chickpeas
Equal parts of chicken or vegetable stock and water, to cover
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and gently smashed
1 bay leaf
Juice of 1 lemon

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C quick cooking yellow polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 T freshly grated lemon peel
Pine nuts, for garnish

Soak the chickpeas in a bowl of cold water overnight. Drain and rinse well, then put in a heavy saucepan with the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Just cover the chickpeas, with equal parts of stock and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until very tender, about 45 minutes. Drain, discarding the used onion, garlic and bay leaf. Toss well with lemon juice. Set aside.

Then, in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk, cream, stock, garlic, and thyme to a simmer. Discard garlic cloves and thyme, and remove saucepan from the heat. Let stand for 10 minutes. Place saucepan to the heat and return the liquid to a slow boil, slowly pouring in the polenta. Vigorously whisk, until it reaches the consistency of oatmeal, about 5-7 minutes.

To finish, grate fresh lemon peel over chickpeas and combine with pine nuts, gently tossing them well. Then, spoon polenta into shallow bowls or on plate, topping each with a generous mound of lemony chickpeas and pine nuts.

Pourboire: there is nothing wrong with substituting canned chickpeas that are well drained. But, they will need to be briefly simmered in some stock with onion, garlic and bay leaf to impart flavor. Just take care not to overcook the canned species.

The right time to eat: for a rich man when he is hungry, for a poor man when he has something to eat.
~Mexican proverb

A thinner version of cousin crème fraîche, rich and delicately sour crema Mexicana is simply unpasteurized cream which is slightly thickened naturally by bacteria. Crema is often drizzled atop tamales, enchiladas, soups, eggs or even slathered on tortillas as a base for tacos. That is just a brief take south of the border.

Spread this velvety condiment with impunity hither, thither and yon and simply self-indulge. Adulterate most all with it. Once hooked, you’ll never savor a taco again without a spatter or squeeze of silky crema—a sauce undeniably deserving of those bourdainesque food porn tags and prurient innuendos.

Crema is more heat stable than sour cream and is less likely to break or separate while cooking. Covered and refrigerated, it will keep for about a week or so. In a pinch, you may also purchase crema at the local grocery or Latin market.

CHIPOTLE CREMA

2 t buttermilk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 T chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
Juice of 1/2 fresh lime
Pinch of cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1/4 t sea salt

Pour cream into a small saucepan over low heat and stir just until the chill is off the cream. Lukewarm it—do not scald or boil. Stir in the buttermilk and pour into a glass jar.

Place a lid over the jar but do not tighten or batten down the hatches. Set in a warm location and allow to rest for at least one full day until it is noticeably thicker, much like yogurt. Once thickened, stir gently and refrigerate at least 4 hours to complete the thickening process.

In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the crema with the chipotles in adobo sauce, lime juice, cumin and salt. Process on high speed until smooth.

AVOCADO CREMA

1 C+ crema
3 T fresh cilantro leaves, freshly chopped
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and roughly chopped

2 large avocados–halved, pitted, scooped and chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Pinch of sea salt

Make the crema as above or purchase at the store.

Add the cilantro and jalapeño to a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade, and purée until smooth. Add the crema, avocados, lime juice and salt and purée until combined. Taste and adjust the flavor by adding more salt if needed.

Pourboire: in a pinch, crema can be purchased at the local grocery or Latin market. Also, please draw on your imagination and consider versions where mashed, chunky avocado, chopped cilantro, minced garlic, minced roasted chiles, oregano, etc. are added to blend/process with the crema base. For instance, in the last batch of crema, I finished by adding a teaspoon or so of the unused dry rub for the low and slow roasted pork butt (salt, pepper, roasted & ground cumin seeds, dried oregano, dried sage, and dried ancho chile powder).

Lamb Down & Tzatziki

May 14, 2011

Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.
~Socrates

Tomorrow, another young ruminant bites the dust. A whole roasted spring lamb with Greek fixings, including tzatziki, awaits. Having been assured that this spring sacrifice was not lured from a local childrens’ petting zoo with rodent pellets, I will sleep soundly tonight. Mary’s little lamb, on the other hand, is sleeping fleeceless with the fishes…only to be almost miraculously resurrected over glowing coals.

Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are cultivated creeping vines from the gourd family which bear cylindrical fruit. With south Asian origins dating back some 10,000 years, several different cucumber cultivars have emerged over time. English cucumbers have thin, tender, edible skins and a relative lack of seeds which lends sweetness.

Tzatziki (τζατζίκι) is the omnipresent and ever versatile Grecian meze, served as a dip, soup, sauce or salad. Common to Mediterranean cuisines, this delicate yet tangy mingling of cucumber, yogurt, garlic, lemon and mint often graces gyros, souvlaki, vegetables, and grilled or roasted meats, to name a few. Offer when cool as a cucumber.

TZATZIKI

1 English cucumber, peeled and diced
Sea salt

2 C Greek yogurt (yiaourti)
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled, smashed and finely minced
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt
1/2 C fresh mint leaves, cut into ribbons

Salt the cucumber and place over a wire mesh strainer positioned over a bowl. Set aside to drain for 2 hours or so.

Meanwhile, in another bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice and zest, garlic, black pepper, another pinch of salt, and fresh mint chiffonade.

Squeeze out the excess moisture from the cucumbers and add to the yogurt mixture. Stir well to combine. Allow to rest in refrigerator for at least two hours before serving so the flavors can marry.

Pourboire: you may also wish to drain the yogurt overnight through a cheesecloth or muslin bag suspended over a bowl. Discard the liquid in the bowl and use the thickened result. This step is mandatory should Greek yogurt be unavailable.

Happiness can only be found if you can free yourself of all other distractions.
~Saul Bellow

Coming as little suprise, the vast majority of Americans use their computers and televisions at the same time. So, Boston College profs S. Adam Brasel and James Gips decided to study media multitasking habits. They positioned cameras to track where research subjects were gazing in order to perceive the demands and disruptions caused by frequently switching between television and computer screens. Their rather startling (not?) findings will be reported in an upcoming article in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. On average, the study vassals switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer well over 120 times every half hour. When asked, participants thought they may have averted their glances between screens only 15 times per half hour, showing a less than subtle lack of self-awareness—a universally shared human trait.

While the computer prevailed in holding individual concentration spans, neither device proved capable of gleaning the attention of study participants for very long, regardless of age. The median length of gaze lasted less than two seconds for television and less than six seconds for the computer. Have you ever tried to fully engage a serious novel with the TV blaring, even whispering, in the same room?

So, what is truly the level of comprehension among people who frequently switch their attention between devices? How do we quantify such visually tweeked cerebral contortions? Remember, the study did not even contemplate other no less dominant “time saving” stimuli: cell phone calls, endless texts to and fro, tweets, f-book posts, music, and a chiming iPad all simultaneously garnering attention from the same person. Oh, and alas let us not forget those living souls in the room who have the gall to crave live communication. Sounds like ADDHD on crack. It is no stretch to say that multi-device sensory overload and distraction enliven stress in an already stress enhanced world. What these disorienting diversions do to intimacy is for another day, but it seems sadly evident. As for effects on the details and reinvention of imagination? Unsure.

Finding solace in the kitchen can be a ceremonial escape from the day’s distractions. Hand transforming raw, solitary ingredients into a savory amalgamation of tastes, scents, textures and hues for the communal table is a focused outlet—an artful destressor of sorts. Simple or haute, cooking offers a mission, a task with a certain rhythm topped by a sense of accomplishment…a chance to impose free will and character. Throughout the coddle, what may seem mundane may prove vital. And afterwards, you relish the contentment of eating your work (with others maybe?).

It only seemed fitting to offer four doors to this post, all the while fixed on my laptop and pecking away with an Anthony Bourdain re-run and inane ads droning in the background. Scribbling here without cells, texts, tweets, tunes, radio, iPad—but, still pandering to live beings and a screen or so.

PESTO POTATO SALAD

3 lbs red potatoes, quartered

6 organic, free range eggs

1 large bunch fresh radishes, rinsed, scrubbed and thinly sliced

1 C pesto
1/2 C Dijon mustard
1/2 C capers
1/2 C pine nuts, toasted
3 T champagne vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Champagne vinegar, to taste

Place potatoes into a large heavy bottomed pot. Cover with cold water and place over medium high heat. Bring to a boil then immediately reduce heat and remove lid. Gently simmer until potatoes are fork tender. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then promptly drain and dry well. Slice potatoes, but not overly thin.

Place eggs in a heavy large saucepan. Cover with cold water, and place over high heat. At the first serious boil, remove the pan from heat, cover and let stand 14 minutes. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then remove and dry. Thinly slice the boiled eggs.

In a large bowl, mix together the pesto, dijon mustard and champagne vinegar to taste; then add the potatoes, radishes, boiled eggs, capers and pine nuts. Mix well with both hands. Season with salt and pepper to your liking. You may need to add more pesto, dijon mustard and champagne vinegar to reach the right moisture level. As with all salads, the ingredients should just be nicely coated and not soupy.

PESTO MASHED POTATOES

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks

1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
6 T unsalted butter
1 C+ pesto
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a large heavy pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

When done, drain potatoes well, return to pot, add milk, cream, butter, pesto, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—creating a more rustic version. The butter, milk and cream amounts will likely need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

PESTO FINGERLINGS

2 lbs small fingerling potatoes, cleaned
Sea salt

4 T butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 C+ pesto

In a large pot, combine salt, water, and potatoes and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Cooking time depends on fingerling size. Drain and remove from the pot, placing the potatoes into a large bowl. Add butter, salt, pepper, 1/3 cup of pesto and toss well, but gently. Plate up as a side dish, and drizzle pesto over fingerlings as desired.

Pesto

4 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 C pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 C Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Sea salt, to taste

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil, more if needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in the bowl of a food processor armed with the steel blade. Process in pulses into a paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and process further until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheese and add more oil if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Put the pesto in a bowl and set aside.

Pourboire: if pine nuts are unavailable or outlandishly expensive, you may substitute walnuts.

If to be interesting is to be uncommonplace, it is becoming a question, with me, if there are any commonplace people.
~Mark Twain

I openly admit to primitive pastry and baking skills. My purlieu lies elsewhere, in a more savory world.

The term “muffin” is derived either from the French word moufflet, meaning a soft bread, or from the German word muffe which is the name for a type of cake. Much like pancakes, it is a two bowl yeast free method where you simply fold the wet into the dry. Please do not overmix—this overdevelops the gluten in the flour which causes tough muffins with tunnels and a compact, almost rubbery texture. Always hand stir the batter until just thick and lumpy.

Symmetrical with domed tops, these muffins are humble homages to those overripe bananas or luscious blueberries peering at you from the counter or fridge. In either event, moist and tender muffins are fine ways to fuel up a morning coupled with a morning cup of joe, or they can be that needed pick me up when you hit that proverbial late afternoon wall…maybe they are an occasional antidote to circadian cycle hiccups.

This may fall short of provocative fare that elicits raves. Then again, things plebeian are not always prosaic.

BANANA OAT MUFFINS

1 1/2 C walnuts

2 C all-purpose flour
1 1/2 C rolled oats
1 1/2 C granulated white sugar
2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 t ground cinnamon
Grating of nutmeg

4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 C unsalted butter (1 stick), melted and cooled
6 very ripe large bananas (approximately 1 lb.), mashed well (about 1-1/2 cups)
2 t pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F

Place the nuts on a baking sheet and bake for about 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly toasted. Let cool and then chop coarsely.

In a large bowl combine the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and nuts.

In a medium-sized bowl combine the mashed bananas, eggs, melted butter, and vanilla.

Lightly fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined, and the batter is thick and chunky. Take care not to over mix the batter as totally smooth batter will yield tough, rubbery muffins.

Line two 12 holed muffin pans with paper liners or butter. Spoon the batter into the prepared tins. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Place on a wire rack to cool for five minutes and then remove muffins from pan.

BLUEBERRY MUFFINS

5 C all-purpose flour
1 C granulated white sugar
1/2 C raw sugar
3 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
Zest of one orange
Zest of one lemon

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 C buttermilk or plain low-fat yogurt
1 1/3 C canola oil
2 t pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 C fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 350 F

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, orange and lemon zests. Gently fold in the blueberries.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla extract.
Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir only until the ingredients are combined. Do not over mix the batter as smooth batter will yield tough, rubbery muffins.

Line two 12 holed muffin pans with paper liners or butter. Spoon the batter into the prepared tins. Fill each muffin cup about 3/4 full of batter. Place in the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for about 5 minutes before removing from pan.