Oath (ōth) n., 1. a solemn usually formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says. 2. a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.

I am slightly breaking my silence about the reckless Republican debt ceiling crusaders performing their Barnum & Bailey act in DC’s big tent recently. Unlike a circus though, it is not really amusing to see a party wantonly intent on bureaucratic paralysis and fiscal carnage for some warped “cause” urged by rogue ideologues.

So, the mantic vows these people offered to different daddies seemed worthy of a look-see.

All members of Congress took a solemn oath to the people of this country:

I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

But, many of the very same members of Congress also signed an oath to a select few:

I pledge to the taxpayers of the district or state and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or business; and TWO, oppose any reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Those members of Congress that inked this other oath pledged that under no circumstance—not war, nor government debt default, nor infrastructure failure nor any national calamity—will they tolerate any increase in government tax revenues. Regardless of what happens, these members swore to resolutely oppose any tax increase, even for the wealthy, and that tax loopholes and business subsidies must remain immutably fixed without a tax rate reduction of similar size.

“So help me God,” huh? Seems more mephistophelean. Almost every House Republican and most Republican Senators made a pledge to another master that actually nullifies part of their oaths of office. Despite their solemn oath to the citizenry, their blind allegiance lies with some private concern most voters did not even realize existed. When these same politicians officially swore to their country to “bear true faith and allegiance” to their country and the Constitution “freely” and “without any mental reservation,” they were prevaricating.

Oaths are not subject to venial side deals, and swearing to uphold both covenants is both duplicit and complicit. Pledging away an oath is forked tongue stuff. Almost like taking an oath “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; so help me God” with a parenthetical ending that whispers “well, just sometimes, when it suits me.”

Meanwhile, on to more eternal, and less childish, thoughts. My youngest is drifting about Santa Barbara this week…lucky soul. Today, he revelled in the awe inspiring marine mammal life in the Channel, replete with big blues, breaching humpbacks, cavorting dolphins and sea lions. Others lurked unseen below the surface, including halibut which reigns with local fishermen. It seemed an apt vicarious pick.

The California halibut is a species native to the Pacific coast, from Washington to the Baja, and is much smaller than its more northern cousin. They have small scales that are embedded in their skin, with both eyes located on one side of the head. They start life with an eye on each side, but very soon the left eye migrates to the right. The darker top side is olive green to dark brown, while the underside is white which is an adaptation to conceal the fish from predators.

Quenelles have become associated more with a shape, not so much an ingredient. These delicate dumplings are formed into ovals similar to eggs with spoons using ice creams, sorbets, rice, potatoes, cheeses, vegetables, poultry, fish and meats.

HALIBUT QUENELLES WITH SAFFRON AND FENNEL BEURRE BLANC

Pâte à choux
1/2 C water
4 T cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Pinch of sea salt
3/4 C all purpose flour
3 large eggs, room temperature

In a medium heavy saucepan, combine the water, butter and salt and heat over medium high heat. Whisk occasionally, then once the mixture boils immediately remove from heat. Add the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until a smooth dough forms and the mixture comes away from the sides of the saucepan; return to low heat and continue beating until it dries out and pulls away from the pan, about 1-2 minutes.

Scrape the dough into a bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with a flat paddle. Beat the eggs into the dough, one at a time, beating thoroughly between each one. It is important to make sure that each egg is incorporated into the batter before adding the next. The dough should be well aerated and ultimately have the consistency of very thick mayonnaise. Make sure the pâte à choux is well chilled before you combine with the fish.

Quenelles
1 1/4 lb skinless, boneless halibut filets, cut into 1″ pieces and chilled
3/4-1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Grating of fresh nutmeg

Put the fish, pâte à choux, salt, pepper, nutmeg and some of the cream into a chilled food processor bowl fitted with a cold steel blade and blend until smooth. Process by pulses, scraping the sides with a spatula. If the mixture seems stiff, add more cream in small doses until the mixture holds it shape well like a mousse. It should be able to shape well in a large spoon.

Bring salted water in a deep heavy skillet to a slow simmer. Never allow the water to move beyond a bare simmer as you cook.

With a large (2 T) wet spoon, dip out a rounded mass of the cold quenelle paste. Smooth the top of the paste with the bowl of an inverted second large wet spoon. Then slip the second spoon under the quenelle to loosen it and drop it into the simmering liquid. Repeat with the rest of the paste. The idea is to shape the mousse into ovoids and gently place in the simmering water. Dip the tablespoons into cold water after shaping each quenelle. Poach them uncovered for 15-20 minutes. When done, they should have almost doubled in size and should be able to roll over easily in the water. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on towels.

Beurre Blanc
2 C dry white wine
1 C champagne vinegar
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper
1/2 C fennel bulb, finely minced
Pinch saffron
12 T (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Boil wine, champagne vinegar, salt, pepper, fennel and saffron in small saucepan over medium heat until liquid is reduced to 4 tablespoons, about 15 minutes. Whisk in half the butter, piece by piece, until it forms a creamy paste. Set saucepan over low heat and continue vigorously whisking in a piece of butter at a time just as the previous piece is almost fully incorporated. The sauce should have the consistency of a lighter hollandaise. Remove from heat, season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm, so it does not separate.

Spoon a layer of sauce in shallow soup bowls. Arrange a couple of quenelles on top and spoon some more sauce over them. Serve.

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America is my country and Paris is my hometown.
~Gertrude Stein

It may seem obvious from past ramblings that I am an unabashed francophile. So, given that yesterday was Bastille Day, allow me to regale some. Every year this month we should remember and embrace the many bonds between both the republics of America and France. (America should now be more accurately deemed an oligarchy.) Founded upon principles of liberty and equality and violent revolutions launched by a deep resentment and distrust of monarchies, these countries do have kindred origins. Unfortunately, in our age of microwave memory, bumper sticker rhetoric and historical ignorance, the shared admiration which should infuse our relationship is so often discarded. Rational discourse sometimes devolves into jingoist rant. Even given the many errors of both countries’ ways and the diplomatic tensions that have arisen, some mutual respect and affection should bathe both sides of the pond.

To some, France and America may seem improbable partners. But, before you go there consider:

French fur traders and explorers blazed territories on the continent never before seen by whites.

The Revolutionary War which granted sovereignty and independence to the colonies would have likely been lost if not for French financial support, military backing, and naval superiority at Yorktown.

Marquis de La Fayette, who served as major general in the Continental Army and negotiated an increase in French patronage, was considered the adoptive son of George Washington.

The first comprehensive sociological study of the American people was written by a French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville.

The French language, which was the tongue of the English court and the civilized world, has lent so many words and phrases to American English.

The states more than doubled in size with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France.

The Statue of Liberty, other statues and urban design plans were courtesy of French artists and designers.

Millions of Americans are of French descent and many still embrace the culture and language.

Flocks of exuberant American writers, musicians, artists have studied and performed freely in France.

During both world wars, innumerable American and French soldiers and civilians perished side by side on French soil.

Each nation has brazenly borrowed, shared and mimicked the other’s cultures, cuisines, wines, music, art, architecture, styles, and clothing.

Far from a comprehensive list.

This is not to say that meaningful criticism is out of order. Face it—neither country has been beyond reproach. Over history, both France and America have engaged in rampant colonialism, have committed heinous judicial sins, have pursued political imperialism, and have displayed condescending and arrogant behavior. Both have invaded, dominated and subordinated, even enslaved, other peoples. Both have cruelly and shamefully imprisoned, tortured, maimed and killed in the vainglorious name of the state. Both have engaged in improvident, tragic wars. Neither have clean hands. France and America have shared in some disgraceful histories, and ordinary citizens have a duty to remind partisan politicians and biased press alike.

These are imperfect societies governed by imperfect, sometimes maladjusted, peoples. They are ongoing political and anthropological experiments. Our cultural similarities should be cherished and the dissimilarities should not just be accomodated, but nutured. Mutual respect and a sane, humble historical perspective should ever underly our differences…with ever vigilant eyes toward not repeating dark history.

Chauvinism under the guise of patrotism has no place at this table. Pots de crème, chilled champagne and good company do.

POTS DE CREME

3 ozs superior bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), cut into small pieces

2 C heavy cream
1/2 C whole milk

5 egg yolks
1/4 C granulated sugar
Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 325 F

Melt the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl set over a heavy sauce pan with gently simmering water. When the chocolate is close to being melted, turn off the heat and let stand until completely melted.

Meanwhile, in a medium sauce pan, scald the cream and milk.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt until the sugar is completely dissolved. Very slowly whisk the hot cream mixture into the yolks so that the eggs do not cook.

Pour the hot cream mixture through a fine mesh strainer into the melted chocolate. Whisk until fully incorporated and smooth.

Divide chocolate custard among 6 small ramekins. Line the bottom of a baking pan with a folded kitchen towel and arrange filled ramekins on towel. Pour in hot water to the halfway level on the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake in the hot water bath (bain marie), until custards are set around edges but still slightly wobbly in the center, 30 to 35 minutes.

Carefully remove the ramekins from the bain marie, and allow to cool to room temperature. Then, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 4 hours. Serve with a dollop of hazelnut whipped cream and a glass of bubbly.

Crème de Noisettes (Hazelnut Whipped Cream)

3 T hazelnuts
2 C heavy whipping cream
1 vanilla bean split, seeds scraped out
2 T sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F

Toast hazelnuts until brown, about 20 minutes. When the nuts are cool, rub them in your hands to release the papery skins. Chop them in a cook’s knife or pulse in the food processor fitted with the steel knife until finely ground.

In a small saucepan, bring cream just to the boil. Turn off the heat and add the nuts. Cover, and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and chill overnight.

The next day, pour the cream through a fine mesh strainer into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a whisk. Using the back of a wooden spoon, press on the nuts to push out the cream. Whip with vanilla and sugar until soft peaks form.

Herbs & Capers

July 9, 2011

The mind is its own place.

I began to write about how this week Colts tight end John Mackey died from frontal temporal dementia the result of multiple cerebral trauma; how cyclist Chris Horner suffered a severe concussion from a Tour crash on a narrow, ditched road forcing his confused withdrawal; how over decades hundreds of thousands of now forgotten soldiers have sustained grave head injuries, coming home afoot or in boxes. All of that rattled gray matter. The altered consciousness, amnesia, flashbacks, dizziness, seizures, ringing ears, double vision, skewed dreams, agonized psyches, malaise, deprived sleep, anxiety, woeful depression…and more. So much more than a dismissive “shake it off” or simplistic alert + oriented x 3.

Instead, my memory safely drifted to sunflowers. During a recent stage in Normandie, the peloton swept by a field teeming with these flowering heads. But, the yellow radiant blooms were turned away, shyly shunning the cameras. Yet somehow, almost bewitchingly, the brain adjusted and turned the hidden lemon flowers toward the mind’s eye. Despite reality, my mind embraced a yellow pallette.

HERB & CAPER SAUCE

1 C ciabatta or baguette, crusts removed, torn into pieces
3 T sherry or champagne vinegar

3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

1 C fresh flat leaf parsley
3 T basil leaves
1 t fresh thyme leaves
1/2 t fresh sage leaves

4 T capers, rinsed and drained
1 egg yolk

1 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the bread and sherry or champagne vinegar, and toss together, and allow sit for 10 minutes or so

Turn on a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and add the garlic. Chop more finely, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you pulse the processor. Add the herbs to the processor, and pulse several times until contents are finely chopped. Add the bread, capers and egg yolk to the bowl, and pulse the processor on and off until well blended, about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape down the sides again, then turn on and add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drizzle over grilled or roasted meats, fish, breads, and even pasta.

Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.
~George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday was somewhat of a Breton train wreck at the Tour…some ten crashes, two riders out, a half dozen injured, and egos bruised. The peloton snaked through stingy ancient roads, then formed eschelons to evade the ever changing Atlantic winds that buffeted the riders as they approached a perilous finish.

Today, the pack licked their wounds and began their invasion of Normandie—a rolling 226 km conquest from the architecturally awesome Dinan to the idyllically Norman Lisieux. One long day in the saddle. With the exception of sprinters, discretion seemed to form the better part of valor on this stage. While braving heavy rain showers and even some hail, riders appeared more cautious and teams seemed to be conserving energy for the decisive mountain stages. Yet the ride was not without breakaways, drama and a scintillating dash to the finish.

Tomorrow, the race begins to turn south in a transitional stage, one of the flattest of the Tour. After that, the climbs become more somber, with several less than leisurely rides in the lofty Massif Central, before more menacing stuff unfolds in the sheer Pyrénées and the Alpes. There, men will be separated from boys.

For now, the Tour is in Normandie, home of sublime cream, butter, cider, veal, duck, offal, sausages, Calvados, Camembert, Livarot, and Pont-l’Évêque.

Poule au pot has a tradition that harkens back to the Middle Ages. Then, cooks used heavy cauldrons placed directly on open fires, either on the hearth or in the farm yard. They would cover everything and anything in water and let the whole meat and vegetable mix simmer for a long time. While poule au pot may have originated in the Béarn region in southwest France, birthplace of the bon vivant king Henri IV, it is typical Sunday country fare across France.

There are as many variations as there are kitchens, some stuffed (often with chopped giblets, Bayonne ham, bread) and others not (as below).

LA POULE AU POT A LA NORMANDE

1 – 4 lb chicken
Chicken broth and water, in equal parts

Bouquet garni (bundled parsley, thyme and bay leaf)
3 carrots, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1/2 celeriac bulb, trimmed, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
3 medium turnips, trimmed, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
2 medium leeks, light green/whites, washed, cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1 fennel bulb, cored, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1/2 plump, fresh garlic head, separated into cloves with skins intact

1 C crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Fresh tarragon or sage leaves, chopped

Truss chicken and place into a Dutch oven. Cover with chicken broth and water and add bouquet garni, carrots, celeriac, turnips, leeks, fennel and garlic. Bring to a hearty boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer for 1 1/2 hours or so. Cook until chicken is tender and juices run pale yellow when pierced from the thigh. Transfer chicken to a cutting board, breast side down, and carefully transfer vegetables to a large bowl using a slotted spoon. Loosely tent both with aluminum foil. Discard bouquet garni.

Return pot to stove over medium high heat and bring stock to a vibrant boil. Cook until liquid has reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to low, vigorously whisk in crème fraîche and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste.

Meanwhile, untruss chicken and cut into serving pieces. Ideally, the meat should almost fall from the bone but the pieces should remain firm, moist and tender.

Serve chicken over rice pilaf or couscous in shallow bowls with the vegetables…or with small new potatoes or noodles which have been simmered in the broth toward the end of the cooking cycle.

Spoon over crème fraîche sauce to your liking and garnish with fresh tarragon or sage.

Pourboire: Classic poule au pot is usually made without the addition of crème fraîche or cream. You be the boss.

In Paris, they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.
~Mark Twain

The peloton is now squarely in Bretagne. The narrow, winding 4th stage began in the sportive town of Lorient and finished on the summit of the Mûr-de-Bretagne, at the end of a challenging 2 km straightaway ascent. This so-called L’Alpe-d’Huez of Bretagne will sow the seeds of many helmeted doubts.

The Tour began with 198 riders on 22 teams. Unfortunately, some 20-25% of the riders are forced to abandon the race before the finish often due to injury or illness (and banned substances).

The three time defending Tour champion, and a narrow second in today’s stage, Alberto Contador, has been riding amid controversy. Apparently, he tested positive for the banned muscle enhancer clenbuterol during the Tour last year, but has denied any wrongdoing. Contador claims that the lab findings were miniscule, and that the clenbuterol found in his blood was the result of innocently ingesting tainted meat.Even though the Spanish cycling federation cleared Contador and allowed him to compete this year, he could still be stripped of his latest crown if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules against him next month. So, even if Contador ascends the podium in Paris, he still may be ordered to disgorge his titles for the past two years.

Language and culture are so tightly interlaced. In the early 20th century, France remained a pastiche of isolated pays, autonomous tribes, clans and hamlets. Each valley was a little world which often differed from its neighbors by language, custom, governance and opinion. Cultures and dialects were distinctly separated by mountains, rivers, gorges, plateaus and forests. While French was the language of civilized Europe, it was spoken by a minority at home. When the Third Republic (1870-1940) was formed, Parisian politicians amassed legions to wage war against local languages, attempting to colonially eradicate those which least resembled the homeland tongue, e.g., Breton, Provençale, Flemish, Basque, Catalonian, Corsican. Linguisitic homogeneity was in full swing.

The Breton (Ar Brezhoneg) language, closely related to Irish and Welsh and reflecting the deep rooted Celtic heritage in Bretagne, was one such cultural target. Bretons were labelled as remote and romantic separatists, prone to cultural rebellion against the state. Patois was banned and standard French was strictly imposed in schools, railways, newspapers, magazines and even popular tunes. Children were force fed approved French and told to discard their cradle language under threat of punishment and humiliation. It was a complicated social conscription as are many drafts. But, some even assert that the life of this provincial dialect was prolonged by promoting “proper French”…and many now say that without Breton, the identity of Bretagne would be lost.

On to a Breton fave, pommes de terres primeurs. Symbolic of the vegetable rich coastal areas and gentle climate of Bretagne, these hand harvested new potatoes have thin, delicate skins. They owe their subtly sweet flavor and melt in your mouth texture to very early harvesting and immediate marketing. This preserves the sugars before they are converted into starch.

It is unlikely that you will find these Breton gems around town, so just forage for new potatoes from locals at farmers’ markets. While this presentation may seem overly primitive, fine new potatoes need little embellishing. Kalon digor!

NEW POTATOES & HERBS

25 or so smaller new potatoes
Cold water and whole milk, in equal parts
Sea salt

3-4 T unsalted butter
2 T combined fresh thyme, parsley and sage leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently wash, scrub potatoes so as not to mar the skins. Place in a heavy pot, add water and milk to cover and season generously with salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat to a gentle roll and cook, partially covered, until tender. Cooking time varies depending on potato diameter, so be poised with fork nearby to pierce for doneness.

Using the cover, carefully drain well and return pot to burner over low heat. Gently shake pot just until the remaining liquid has evaporated. Then add the butter to lightly coat potatoes, again swirling the pot some. In stages, add fresh herbs and salt and pepper to taste in so that the potatoes are nicely coated.

Le Tour & Turnip Soup

July 3, 2011

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
~H.G. Wells

Please excuse my exuberance, but it’s that time of year again.

Yesterday was the grand départ of this year’s ever epic Tour de France —3,430.5 grueling kilometres (2,131.6 mi) over three weeks. Customarily, the Tour has begun with a prologue stage where riders raced solely against the clock. In a break with tradition, the organizers opened with a road stage on the Atlantic seaboard which proved fairly flat but closed with an undulating finish and a brief, yet deceptively arduous, climb. A route which favored riders who can unleash rapid, potent bursts of uphill acceleration.

The supple grace, suffering, precision and outright speed of the team trial was held today…a precise race against the clock, and a reminder to even the most casual observers that the Tour de France is a team sport. Sheer beauty on wheels.

The Tour’s field now heads into Bretagne (Brittany), an almost mystical region defined by the sea and perched on the northwest tip of France. Bretagne stands apart from the rest of France, its peninsular thumb jutting into the blue, separating the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay. The modern administrative region roughly silhouettes the historic province, and is now comprised of the départements of Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan.

Although inhabited by peoples as early as 8,000 BCE and conquered by Romans who occupied the region for several centuries, Brittany’s true birth was forged during the Dark Ages. Then, waves of Irish, Welsh and English immigrants (Bretons) “invaded” and profoundly altered the character of the peninsula, which became Bretagne. They spread their own brand of religion as well as a fiercely insular, sometimes resentful, spirit. A wary sensitivity about their environs. This ruggedly independent attitude is reinforced by landscape—a land which boasts a staggering 1,700 miles of contorted coastline characterized by windswept cliffs, capes, islands, and rocky ports, many with ominous sounding names. While the seascapes tend to be dramatic, the landscapes inland are more mellow. The interior lies on the Argoat plateau (wood country) where small farm plots are surrounded by hedgerows, a patchwork known as the bocage.

The sea’s and land’s bounties are jealously guarded yet so copiously displayed at local markets. A cornucopia of varied flat fish, oysters, sea urchins, scallops, mussels, whelks, langoustines, crevettes, lobsters and crabs rest on ice. Other stalls brim with produce grown on the Argoat farmlands: cauliflower, onions, peas, turnips, cabbages, white beans, and the omnipresent Breton artichokes. Also displayed are lamb raised on nearby salt marshes, along with prized chickens, geese, regional sausages and various offal. Farmers sell fresh milk and the region’s esteemed butter, apples from the Argoat orchards, strawberries from Plougastel, and famed new potatoes from the inland sandy flats.

POTAGE AUX NAVETS BLANCS (TURNIP SOUP)

3 T unsalted butter
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

5 medium white turnips (about 2 1/2 lbs), peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
5 C+ chicken broth

1 3/4 C whole milk
1/4 C whipping cream
Grating of nutmeg

1 turnip, peeled, cut into small matchstick julienne

Fresh fennel fronds, chopped

Melt butter in heavy large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and sauté until onion is translucent, about 10-12 minutes. Add turnips and potato and sauté 2 minutes. Add broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Purée soup in processor or blender in batches until very smooth, then return to Dutch oven. Add milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Cook julienned turnips in pot of boiling salted water until just tender yet crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain.

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if necessary. Ladle into bowls and garnish with turnip strips and chopped fresh fennel.