Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.
~Mark Twain

Decision fatigue. That mental chisel which chips away at rational choice. The brain strain that afflicts both rich and poor, those slogging through work’s quagmire, agonizing at the mall or mired down at home. Different from what is typically perceived as physical fatigue, it takes an insidious toll on the brain. Researchers have noted that over time it depletes the mind’s energy, leading to erratic choices and dubious decisions. Faced with navigating a ceaseless influx of decisions upon decisions, many look for shortcuts and some begin to act impulsively while others resist change and do little. Even the mere act of resolving potential tradeoffs may prove cerebrally exhausting. Innovation and creativity often lag. Willpower wanes. Choosing threads, wheels, colors, fabrics, channels, deals, gadgets, abodes, mates and more…all can foster tired, vulnerable minds which is the paralytic price paid for our dizzying overabundance of options. Well, with the exception of partners which usually presents either arid or florid choices.

The human brain is a remarkably pliant organ, but it is not without limits. Much like a muscle, when it becomes depleted, the brain loses efficiency. But, unlike other body parts, the brain usually fails to appreciate when an onslaught of decisions renders it fatigued. As with depression and other mental disorders, the very organ that is supposed to protect against harm is the same organ which is disabled. The often unrecognized tired mind struggles to ascertain what to retain and what to disregard, often failing at both, and then rueful choices follow.

Decision fatigue even plagues home cooks pondering a simple meal. Such an array of options. What sounds most appealing? What to buy or what is even available at the markets? Should the meal be lavish or frugal? Are there compromises to consider? What app(s), entrée and sides should be served? What types of prep are most apt given the basic menu and timing issues? Whose palate must be placated? How should the meal be plated? Should any of the meal be served in courses or at once? What should be served to drink? Which wines pair better? Shall there be dessert, and if so, what? How should the table be set and the meal presented? What otherwise seems a banal task of serving food can be rife with uncertainty and tiresome indecision. Perhaps this is why many have a short list of favored meals.

Acute and chronic stress levels are reaching blight proportions. Not only does prolonged stress raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, increase the risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, it makes you one unpalatable mate. Researchers have even learned that chronic stressors can rewire the brain in ways that promote its presence. These sinister changes in the neural circuitry affect the regions of the brain associated with decisions and behavior. You tend to fall back on rote routine and eventually settle into bad habits. Executive decision-making skills are hampered.

Fortunately, stress induced changes to the brain are reversible, and pharmaceuticals are often not the answer. Solace can be found in the kitchen. Once embraced, cooking offers a change of pace and venue, soothing the angst and perturbations of the daily rut. Jangled nerves can be soothed. On a most basic level, it provides a creative outlet where raw, solitary ingredients are transformed into an amalgamation of scents, flavors, textures and hues. While stress numbs the senses, cooking activivates them. The cooking process has an almost measured field of action, a mission with a defined goal, and a finish with sensuous contentment.

Below is an embarassingly easy salad, soup, and sandwich trio to add to your decision tree. Relax, unwind, create and then savor. To narrow the matrices for the indecisive, the core ingredients remain fairly constant—fennel and fungi fervor with bright, fragrant tones of anise, sometimes citrus, and an underlying earthiness.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SALAD WTH CITRUS-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 C fine champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 C extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Parmigiano reggiano, thinly sliced into curls

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, orange zest, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream until it emulsifies. Set aside.

Cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb so as to remove the fingers. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a knife.

Slice the bulb very thinly into rings. Add mushroom slices and gently toss with a light coating of the champagne-orange vinaigrette. Sparsely finish with a few parmigiano reggiano curls.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SOUP

4 T unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and chopped
1 t fennel seeds, toasted and ground
8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed

4 C mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/2 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter until hot and foaming, but not browning. Add the fennel and toasted fennel seeds, then sauté over moderate until just softened, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushrooms, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, turn to high until it just reaches a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Pour into a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée in pulses until smooth.

Pour the puréed soup into a large heavy saucepan, add the cream, and gently reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking. Ladle into shallow soup bowls and strew with tarragon ribbons.

FENNEL, MUSHROOM & PROSCUITTO PANINI

1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and thinly sliced, almost shaved
4 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 oz proscuitto, very thinly sliced
4 oz taleggio or fontina cheese, sliced

Artisan bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill sparingly with fennel, mushrooms, proscuitto and top with some taleggio. The bread should be the star.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight(s) on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. It should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing cheese.

Pourboire: foods known to reduce stress include asparagus, avocado, berries, beef, cottage cheese, fish, milk, nuts, oranges, pasta, rice, whole grain breakfast cereals and breads, raw vegetables, cooked spinach, tea, and dark chocolate. Some foods are chocked with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B-6 and B-12 while others increase magnesium, folic acid, calcium and serotonin levels. These foods also counteract cortisol & epinephrine, the so-called “stress hormones” secreted by the adrenal glands.

Chicken With Thai Basil

August 20, 2011

A sweet basil cultivar native to subtopical southeast Asia, thai basil is a member of the family Lamiaceae—kin to such garden staples as rosemary, sage, mint, lavender, oregano, marjoram, savory, and thyme. Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflorum) features a square purple stem and slightly downy, densely aromatic, purple flushed leaves that grow in spear-like pairs opposite to one another. It tends to be more stable and less flimsy under high cooking heat than standard Genovese sweet basil.

To keep basil vibrant, trim the stems on the bias as you would hothouse flowers, then plunge the bunch in a tall glass of water. Loosely cover the basil with a plastic bag and store on the counter. This keeps moisture in, while allowing the naturally produced and leaf browning ethylene gas to escape. Alternatively but often not as effectively, you can wrap the trimmed stems in a slightly wet paper towel and store the basil in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Although basil’s celebrity could lead to smugness, this dish is without conceit.

CHICKEN WITH THAI BASIL

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2″ pieces
3 T fish sauce
2 T oyster sauce
1 T raw sugar
1/2 T honey
40 leaves Thai basil

2 T peanut or canola oil
4 cloves fresh, plump garlic, peeled and crushed

4 Thai bird chiles, stemmed and minced

In a small bowl, marinate chicken with the fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, honey and 10 basil leaves.

Heat wok over medium high heat and add oil. Once heated, add the garlic. Once the garlic is fragrant but not browned, remove and discard. Then, add the marinated chicken and stir fry until the chicken is just no longer pink. Add remaining basil leaves and chilies and cook until chicken is cooked through, about another 2 minutes.

Serve over jasmine rice, white rice or rice noodles.

Mushroom Broth (Stock)

August 18, 2011

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The debate over broth vs. stock. Why has this always been so perplexing, even amusing?

Broth derives from the Old English noun broþ, having trickled down from an Indo-European verb root bhreu- or bhru- (“to heat, boil, bubble”), which also produced the word “brew.” So, etymylogically speaking, the noun broth means “liquid in which something has been boiled.”

The Germanic form brotham was borrowed into vulgar Latin as brodo, which by way of Old French broez came into 13th century English as broys or browes.

Stock presents a tad more complicated root scenario given its varied definitions and uses (inventory, corporate stock, summer stock, livestock, paper stock, stock remark, etc.). The word originally denoted a “tree trunk,” coming from the Germanic stukkaz. Stock, as used in the sense of broth, was so coined in the mid 18th century, because one keeps a “stock” of “broth” on hand in the stockpot.

Etymylogically, they seem nearly interchangeable. But, many chefs may dispute this, contending that stock is produced by slowly simmering relatively unseasoned bones and cartilage, some meat scraps, vegetables and aromatics in order to extract their essences. Often, the collagen rich bones are first oven roasted with the vegetables, and then added to the water to further enhance colors and flavors. This gelatinous, rich, and viscous stock is then strained and later used as a base to build sauces, gravies, soups or braises. Broth, on the other hand, they claim is crafted with whole meat morsels, is more delicate by nature and refers to an already finished and seasoned product. So, although not necessary broth can be made of stock.

Add to this semantic cauldron culinary terms like bouillon, court bouillon and consommé and mayhem ensues.

The distinction between vegetable stock and broth seems neglible. As for mushroom broth, made from those noble fungi taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants and animals and more genetically related to animals than plants…a vegan conundrum?

MUSHROOM BROTH

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 1/2 C large mushroom stems (e.g., portabella), cleaned and sliced lengthwise
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 C dry white wine
1 T shoyu
1 C dried mushrooms, such as porcini and/or shiitake
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 t dried herbes de Provence
3 sprigs fresh thyme
8 whole black peppercorns
3 C water
3 C vegetable stock

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Add the mushrooms, stems, onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine, shoyu, dried mushrooms, salt, dried herbs, thyme, peppercorns, water and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to moderate and simmer until the liquid is reduced about one half, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Pour the hot broth through a fine strainer into a large bowl. Strain a second time for good measure.

Store broth in the fridge for up to four days, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

One can resist the invasion of an army but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.
~Victor Hugo

Disorientation can occur in even the most precise of places. Just a few years ago, the Swiss army mistakenly invaded Lichenstein—a principality which has been without an army for well over a century. Not only has Switzerland been famously neutral for some 500 years, a sizeable minority once suggested in a national plebiscite that the country no longer even needed a military. While the invaders were armed with assault rifles, they had no ammunition. Once the misdirected recruits realized their error, they sheepishly tiptoed back to the homeland before anybody noticed. The next day, a formal apology was issued.

Just my kind of military incursion…delightfully comical, no shots exchanged, with all diplomatically forgiven and forgotten.

That lissom, leafy green known as Swiss chard really is not an authentic Swiss piece. Actually, the first varieties have been traced to the Mediterranean basin, likely Sicily. Some posit that seed cataloguers tried to distinguish chard from varieties of French spinach by using the neighborly word “Swiss.” Others claim that chard got its common name from another local green, cardoon, a celery-like plant with thick stalks. French cooks began calling them both carde, and confusion reigned which may have lead to the Swiss modifier.

The roasted, ground fennel seeds are a must.

RISOTTO & SWISS CHARD (RISOTTO e BIETOLE)

7-8 C chicken or vegetable stock

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C yellow onion, chopped

1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 C dry white wine

1 lb swiss chard, washed well, stemmed, cut into strips
2 t fennel seeds, roasted then ground
4 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 C parmigiano reggiano, grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium heavy sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, almost simmering.

Heat the oil in a heavy pot, add the onions, and sauté over moderately high heat until the onion softens and becomes translucent. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes.

Then, begin the process. Add a ladleful of hot stock, and cook, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more. The rice will become tender and creamy but still al dente after about 18 minutes.

Add the wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the chard, fennel, butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. The chard should be wilted and the rice tender and firm. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

Baba Ganoush

August 10, 2011

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.
~Mark Twain

How the simple yet elegant baba ganoush ducked under the radar on this site is baffling. Not really a stealthy dish, as I have made, served and savored it many a time. Maybe it just took a needed, overdue coupling with two dear coastal pollo-pescatarians who have a penchant for hummus coupled with an oversupply of eggplant here to jump start the needed synapses. Just seemed natural to re-create a close cousin to, but in lieu of, sweetly addictive hummus. Breaking through that gateway hummus habit may prove brutally painful, but baba ganoush is a substance to consider. A methadone of food.

Baba ganoush or baba ganouj (بابا غنوج) is an iconic purée of eggplant, tahini, lemon juice, garlic and herbs. A protean dish—regional names, versions and services may vary across the Middle East and Mediterranean basin. But, whether served as an app, salad or side, the eggplant always remains front and center.

Baba ganoush can be refrigerated for up to 5 days prior to serving. Like most things, it improves after nestling overnight.

BABA GANOUSH

3 medium eggplants, halved lengthwise
1/2 C tahini (sesame paste)
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Small pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 C lemon juice
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 t sea salt, or to taste

Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro leaves, for garnish
A drizzling of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 F

Place eggplant with cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil. Prick in several places with a fork, place in oven and roast until soft, about 20-25 minutes. Cooking time varies depending on size and ripeness. A paring knife should easily slide into the eggplants. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

When cool enough to handle, scoop eggplant pulp into a bowl, discarding the skins. Add tahini, garlic, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Then gently stir together. Empty the mixture into a food processor fitted with a steel knife and purée in pulses until fairly smooth. Season to taste with more salt and/or lemon juice, if neccessary.

Garnish with parsley and lightly drizzle with olive oil. Serve with roasted bread slices or wedges of warm pita.

Pourboire: Adding a slight pinch of dried cumin or some seeded and diced fresh tomatoes are pleasing detours. Also, consider serving with a few fine cured olives.

The death of a parent is rarely well served by prose, essay or exalted speech. And obits never do justice. Like life, death is more the stuff of poetry with melodious cadence, dissonance, subtlety and ambiguity. That big visual born of few, yet potent, words that link pasts and presents.

My father was admittedly no wordsmith. He was more a man of carefully metered words and most times an avid listener. He carried a certain grace and charm, a souplesse so when he moved, when he spoke, and even in his eyes there was quiet meaning that seemed as smooth as wet sea stones. While Dad had the power of a raging bull under his skin, outwardly he was poised and glib. Sometimes he was somber, but more often he sported an impish grin, raised brow, dancing look, and always greeting with that crushing handshake. There were diversions along the way of course, some sweet and some not. Nothing is perfect, and none of us are infallible. But, that was the very humor and sadness of the humanity he embraced.

Dad had an abiding love for the endless sea and the eternal pulse of waves. The ocean was his vast cathedral. There he was taught, and there he often returned to discover. So, I felt compelled to give way to a real poet, Pablo Neruda:

Here I came to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back,
its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave,
and every day on the balcony of the sea,
wings open, fire is born,
and everything is blue again like morning.

Kiss-principled, pan sautéed sweetbreads. Something akin to what he savored on some weekend mornings as a child.

SWEETBREADS WITH LEMONS & CAPERS

1 1/2 lbs sweetbreads, preferably veal
Whole milk

Sea salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns
Cold water

Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 t dried thyme
All purpose flour

3 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 C dry white wine
Juice of 2-3 lemons
2 T capers, rinsed

Capers, rinsed or
Chopped tarragon

Briefly rinse sweetbreads under cold water. Place them in a glass bowl, cover with milk, and allow to soak several hours. Remove the sweetbreads, discarding the milk. Using a sharp paring knife and fingers, remove excess membrane or fat. Do not overly obsess about peeling, and do not fret if the sweetbreads separate some into sections. Rinse, pat dry and set aside.

In a heavy large saucepan filled 3/4 full, add a generous pinch of salt, lemon juice, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring the water to a boil, add the sweetbreads, and poach for about 5 minutes. Remove the sweetbreads and briefly plunge them into an ice bath, then drain promptly and dry thoroughly.

Line a small sheet pan with a kitchen towel and place the sweetbreads on the towel in a single layer. Fold the towel over them to cover, then place a same-sized sheet pan on top. Weigh the top pan down with whatever works–a brick, cans of tomatoes, a hand weight. Place in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove from the frig, place sweetbreads on a large platter and bring to room temperature. Season with salt, pepper and thyme and dust in flour, lightly coating on all sides. Melt butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over moderate heat until bubbling but not browning. Sauté sweetbreads until nicely golden brown, turning once. Place the sautéed sweetbreads on a platter or baking dish and set aside, tenting loosely with foil to keep warm.

Deglaze the pan with wine and just bring to a quiet boil, scraping to remove any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Lower to a gentle simmer, add the sweetbreads and finish until just cooked through, about 5 minutes, turning as needed. During the last minute or so, add the lemon juice and capers and cook until sauce has slightly thickened.

Plate sweetbreads, drizzle with sauce, then garnish with capers or chopped tarragon.