Roundabouts & Roots

September 29, 2011

…You got me goin’ in circles
Oh, ’round and ’round I go
Goin’ in circles
Oh, ’round and ’round I go
I’m strung out over you…

~Luther Vandross

It makes me sad to utter this. But, something has run amiss, almost amok here.

In an ever dumbed down America, now even the most simple ideas are often illogically, even rabidly, rejected and then find trouble gaining traction. Our populace has strayed from critical analysis, from free thought, from historical cognizance, from educational enlightenment…rejecting sound reason in favor of wicked demogoguery. Faith, and not knowledge, reigns. Most good ideas “foreign” are blindly rejected without humility as if this land remains some divinely touched insular utopia. You often hear the herd-like anger: while this may work there, it will never work here. Words voiced by a few perturbed by fear and suspicious of change, evoking little but gossip, gripes and poor judgment.

Take roundabouts—those ring intersections through which traffic flows in a counterclockwise circuit, simply yielding to those already inside. First appearing in Great Britain in the early 60’s, there are over 30,000 in France alone (an area slightly smaller than Texas) and only some 2,000 in this entire country. In study after engineering study, roundabouts have been proven to reduce harmful emissions, allow smoother traffic flow, reduce lights and signs, and decrease severe collisions. Yet in the states, whenever some communities are faced with the specter of a roundabout, irrational wrath soon becomes seething apathy, sometimes even squelching the proposal. Then, despite all engineering logic, the collective psyche insists upon the status quo of traffic signals and signs, halted traffic, enhanced CO2 emissions, and grisly wrecks. Allo?

Thankfully, roundabouts are experiencing a slight upsurge here…and where fear ebbs and they are finally constructed, public opinion invariably soars in favor of these sometimes unwelcome circles.

Knobby and gnarly, celeriac is not smoothly round, orb-like in a natural state. But, like root cousins turnips, parsnips, beets, carrots and potatoes, it makes one simple yet exquisite soup.

CELERIAC SOUP

3 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 medium leeks, cleaned, peeled and chopped
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t dried cumin, roasted and ground
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 lbs celery root, peeled and cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
6 C chicken stock

1 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, for garnish

Place the butter and oil in a heavy large pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat until melted. Add the leeks and garlic and cook until soft and translucent, about 4-6 minutes. Add the cumin, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. If the pot begins to brown too much on the bottom as they cook, add another pat of butter or pour of olive oil.

Add the celery root and stir to coat, then add the stock and briefly bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat so that the stock simmers gently and cook, stirring occasionally, until the celery root until soft and easily pierced with a paring knife, about 20 minutes more.

Allow to cool slightly off the heat, then purée in batches in a food processor fitted with a metal blade or a blender. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a sauce pan, whisk in the cream and reheat over medium low. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve in shallow soup bowls garnished with tarragon.

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November 3, 1948, while dining with Paul at La Couronne in Rouen:

“It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: Bon appètit!

I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.”

A life altering meal for Julia Child …”an opening of the soul and spirit for me.” A transforming event for us too.

The vitals to classic sole meunière are fine fresh fish, a heedful sauté and a gently caressed beurre noisette. More a dash than long distance, this dish demands your undivided attention. What follows is crispy-sugary fish, nutty butter, grassy parsley, all gently cut by lemon. Sole meunière may not be trendy, but if done right, you will fall hard.

SOLE MEUNIERE

2 C all purpose flour
4 sole fillets (4 ozs each)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter

4 T unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 T chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 T fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 200 F

Pat fish dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large, heavy sauté pan over medium high heat until shimmering. Then add butter and swirl until melted, then foamy. Meanwhile, dredge the fillets in flour, shake off the excess and place them immediately in the pan with the hot oil. Do not flour the fish beforehand and allow to sit, or you will wound these sweet morsels.

When foam subsides, add the sole and cook until golden, about 2-3 minutes. (As always, crowding is frowned upon, so cook in batches.) With a slotted spatula, carefully turn fish over and cook until opaque in center and golden, another 1-2 minutes.

Remove the fish from the pan and reserve on a racked sheet tray in the oven. Repeat the process with the remaining fish fillets. Keep warm while making the sauce.

With a paper towel, remove only the excess oil and butter from the pan. Add the additional butter over medium high heat shaking the pan frequently to prevent scorching. When the butter is quite bubbly, add the lemon juice and whisk to combine. As the butter begins to turn nutty brown, season with salt and whisk in the chopped parsley. Remove from heat.

Plate and spoon the sole with sauce.

Pourboire: consider doing the same with boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

Eve, Duck & Figs

September 23, 2011

The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.
~Oscar Wilde

Call me old school. I am not yet converted to the phenomenon of e-books, and may never be. This by no means criticizes Kindles and kin nor exalts ecologically unfriendly hardbacks. Opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of both have been voiced ad nauseum. For now, I cannot deny myself the pure almost childlike pleasure of feeling a book in my hands—adoring the cover art, peering under the dust jacket, feeling the spine, ever so gently cracking the book, reading the title page and dedication, caressing the paper stock, leafing throughout the book—then hunkering down and raptly savoring, sometimes tackling, each page of prose while admiring the font, fondling each turn with tactile pleasure, sensing the slight whisper of air as each page settles down snuggled against its mates, memorizing the last page read, closing the unfinished volume softly, and shelving it until we next meet. A blissful seduction. The affair ends in time but is sometimes rekindled.

Banned Book Week, which celebrates free and open access to text and denounces book censorship gets underway this weekend. Underscored are the intellectual freedoms that come from candidly sharing information and expressing thoughts, however unorthodox, and the looming dangers of literary restriction. For whatever flimsy social-political-religious excuse, banning a book is cowardly.

In Eve’s Diary, Mark Twain wryly interpreted the biblical fable of Adam and Eve replete with illustrations depicting Eve frolicking and lounging in Eden. The artist, Lester Ralph, chose to show Eve as she was described in the Bible—naked and comfortable in her skin. While there were no fig leaves, his drawings were far from prurient or lascivious, with her pubis mostly obscured and always rendered sexless. Nothing more and likely less than the typical T&A that had adorned art for centuries beforehand. (A young Picasso had already been penning openly erotic images by the time of Eve’s Diary.) Nevertheless, in 1906 the Bible beating board of trustees at the Charlton Public Library (MA) shamefully claimed outrage and voted to ban the book, removing it from the shelves. Oh, the horror of the female body. The excommunication by this gutless trio comprised of the town clerk, a minister and an undertaker was ridiculed far and wide at the time. Their sinister actions were not reversed until just this year when the current library board voted to put Twain’s porn back into circulation.

In a letter to a friend, penned under S.L. Clemens, the esteemed author bristled: “But the truth is when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”

ROAST DUCK WITH FIGS, BALSAMIC & PORT

1 duck (3-4 lbs), liver reserved & trimmings (neck, heart,
wing tips) chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dried thyme

12 fresh figs, halved
6 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into diagonal slices
2 medium shallots, peeled and cut into thick slices
4 sprigs fresh thyme

1/4 C balsamic vinegar

2 T honey
4 T balsamic vinegar
1/2+ C port wine
4 T unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 425 F

Remove the fatty glands from the upper side of the bird’s tail. Season the duck inside the cavity and out with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Place the liver in the duck and truss neatly with string so it will retain shape. Place the duck on one side in a large heavy roasting pan with a rack, and set it in the oven with the breast side facing toward the back. Roast, uncovered for 10 minutes. Turn the duck on the opposite side and roast for 10 minutes more. Turn the duck on its back and roast for 10 minutes more.

Remove the roasting pan and strew the chopped trimmings, figs (cut side up), garlic, carrot, shallot, and thyme under and around the duck. Cut and remove the trussing string. Return the pan to the oven and roast the duck for about 13-15 minutes per pound. (The time varies according to bird size—with more time per pound for a smaller duck, less time per pound time for a larger duck.) Using a bulb or large spoon, baste several times with pan juices while roasting. During the last 15 minutes, baste with some balsamic as well.

The duck is done to medium rare if the juices from the fattest part of the thigh run faintly rosy when the skin is pricked, and when the duck is lifted and drained, the last drops of juice from the vent are pale rose. The duck is well done when the juices run pale yellow.

Once done, transfer the duck to a platter or cutting board which is propped up at one end at an angle with breast side down and tail in the air so gravity draws the juices into the succulent breasts. Tent and allow to rest.

Carefully remove the figs and set aside covered in a serving bowl for later. Return the roasting pan to the stove with the trimmings over high heat. Cook until they are nicely browned, about 2 minutes. Partly drain and mostly discard the liquid in the pan. Deglaze with several tablespoons of balsamic and honey for about 2 minutes, then add port and simmer for 5 minutes more.

Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve place over a new sauce pan, pressing down on the trimmings. Also add any juices that have drained from the duck as it was resting nearby. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat, and add another couple of tablespoons of balsamic, and reduce. Remove from the heat and add the chilled butter, a few pieces at a time, whisking so that the butter slightly thickens the sauce.

Carve the duck and arrange on plates. Spoon some sauce over, adorn with reserved figs, and serve.

A Deviant Pesto

September 21, 2011

Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.
~Katherine Hepburn

Liguria, that bent little-fingered northwest region that is nestled between sea and mountains, and bordered by Provence/Côte d’Azur, Piedmonte, and Emilia-Romagna/Toscana. With a narrow coastline, Linguria’s lofty hillsides plunge into the sea, leaving scant space for the plains. Genoa is the port capital.

While the origins of pesto are debated and likely unknown, some Genoese archival documents mention a paste called battuto d’aglio (battered garlic) that was enjoyed in the 16th century and afterwards. No basil, extra virgin, pignoli or parm in that mix, but…outside of the city proper, there happens to be a narrow region where a temperate microclimate and soil conjoin to enhance basil growth. Ergo, the connection between Genoese terroir and pesto.

Despite persistent rumor, pesto means neither paste nor basil. From the Genoese dialect, pestâ is a contracted form of pestato, the past participle of pestare, which means “to pound or crush” — in this case worked with a mortar and pestle.

A humble dish inspired by a loosely arranged marriage between pesto and carbonara. In sometimes misdirected zeal, some purists may not bless the union. This has not been meant to be a slight but more of a delight.

LINGUINE WITH LEEK PESTO & PANCETTA

3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 ozs pancetta or bacon, cut into lardons

5 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 medium leeks, trimmed of green ends, well rinsed, and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1+ large egg
1 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped

8 ozs linguine
Sea salt

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano, grated
Fresh basil leaves, for garnish

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat; add the pancetta lardons and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to crisp, 8-10 minutes. Remove the pancetta from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to another medium heavy skillet and heat over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the garlic and leeks, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Pour the garlic and leek mixture to a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the egg and basil and process in pulses, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Season with salt and pepper to your liking. Return the purée to a large, heavy skillet, off the heat.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil and generously salt. Cook the linguine in the boiling water until just al dente, then drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Turn the heat under the garlic and leek purée to medium to warm, toss in the linguine and slowly add 1/4 cup or so of the reserved cooking liquid to thin the pesto, as needed.

Again remove from the heat, add the pancetta, egg yolks, and parmigiano-reggiano, and toss gently but well. Serve in shallow soup bowls garnished with whole basil leaves.

Oh, Baby! Artichokes

September 16, 2011

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

~Luis Buñuel

While memory is often altered to suit self and others (as if life then stands explained), we carry our youth through life. Our early impressions doggedly remain, however spun later to placate others. Sometimes correcting unjust misperceptions or often simply revising the past to fit the present. Thankfully, food has stasis and lacks this kind of delusion. Food adorns a plate honestly without demand or compromise, and sometimes even dominates conversation, imagination. I have been smitten by these green thistles since childhood…at first infatuation, then a torrid tryst and finally an abiding love that has perservered. And at least with artichokes you can rinse and carve away the bitterness.

Despite the misnomer, luscious baby artichokes are not infants. Rather, they are fully mature perennials that grow closer to the ground than their rotund partners, sheltered by fronds overhead which effectively stunts their growth. Artichokes are meticulously planted and harvested by hand. At full blossom, the plants spread to some 6 feet in diameter and reach a height of 3-4 feet. The fields are maintained in perennial culture for some 5-10 years with each cropping cycle launched by cutting back the tops several inches below the soil to stimulate development of new shoots. Sometimes called “stumping,” this is timed to initiate a new harvest.

These tender baby morsels are coveted by chefs thanks to their ease of prep and plating beauty, whether sautéed, roasted, braised, grilled, steamed, or fried. Unlike with larger globes, the inner fuzzy choke does not develop making the plant almost fully edible.

Usually available throughout the year they have a peak spring season, and then a smaller crop is reaped in autumn. Select small, tightly closed, firm, heavy, evenly green artichokes. Avoid dry looking thistles that are browning or too open or gaping.

SAUTEED BABY ARTICHOKES WITH HERBS

Juice of 1 lemon
Cold water
12 baby artichokes

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 fresh sage leaves
1/4 C fresh tarragon leaves, loosely packed
1/2 C fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
Small pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1 T capers (optional)

Rinse the artichokes under cold water. This will remove the natural thin film that can give the choke a bitter taste. Then, snap off the outer layer of leaves until you reach the pale, yellow-green layer of petals—sort of half-green at the top and half-yellow at the bottom. Trim off the stem and pare all remaining dark green areas from bases as they can prove bitter. Cut about 1/2″ off the tops of the artichokes and then cut them in half lengthwise.

To prevent browning, soak the trimmed artichokes in cold water acidulated with lemon or vinegar. This also loosens dirt that may have settled between the leaves. Drain the artichokes well and press between kitchen or paper towels to remove most of the water.

Place a heavy, large sauté pan over medium high heat, then add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. (Please be aware that the water residue will cause spatter when the artichokes are added to the hot oil.)

Add the artichokes in batches to the heated olive oil and toss quickly to sear. Add the garlic, herbs, red pepper flakes, black pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the artichokes are tender, caramelized and slightly crisp at the edges, about 8-10 minutes. Do not burn the garlic—it should be light golden. Season with salt, very lightly sprinkle with grated parmigiano-reggiano, and strew with a few capers.

Pork & Belly Laughter

September 14, 2011

I am unsure where my mother or her brother learned their laughter. There must be some inherent or learned skill to the art of belly chuckles. Genes +/- environment? In any event, my uncle was a gifted raconteur, a deft joke teller, and my mother not. This is not to say she was no storyteller. But, over the years she raptly listened to her brother spin yarns and laughed. They both must have known that those deep down, deceptively hearty, mind theoried, endorphin releasing, primal muscular exertions and sometimes hearty howls produced quiet good to all. Their lustful laughter, which begat laughter, forgave pain, soothed. It eased like a contagious opiate.

In ancient days, Plato and Aristotle addressed the power of laughter to undermine authority. Even recently, researchers at Oxford University subjected people to painful stimuli both before and after exposing them to comedic episodes. Laughter led to higher pain tolerance. The actual laughter alone, not just the positive emotions, elicited pain relief.

This divine, yet nearly lewd, pork belly is no joke. How to tease it out remains—smoking, roasting, dry rubbing, braising?

BRAISED PORK BELLY

1/2 C honey
4 bay leaves
3 rosemary sprigs
4 thyme sprigs
4 flat leaf parsley sprigs
8 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 C black peppercorns
1/4 C red peppercorns
1 C sea salt
8 C water

1 (3 lb) pork belly, not cured

Combine all of the brining ingredients (above) in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Heat for a couple of minutes, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and be sure cool before using.

Cover the belly with the brine and refrigerate for 8-10 hours. Remove the pork belly from the brine, discarding the liquid. Rinse under cold water and pat dry with paper towels.

Extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 ribs celery, sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, roughly chopped
1/2 turnip, roughly chopped
1 parsnip, roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed and finely chopped
Pinch red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt

1 C dry white wine
1/4 C Dijon mustard
3+ C chicken stock
3 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves

Preheat the oven to 325 F

Liberally coat a large, heavy Dutch oven with olive oil and place over medium high heat. Add the onion, celery, fennel, turnip, parsnip, carrot, and garlic. Season with red pepper, black pepper and salt, to taste. Cook the vegetables until they soften and become aromatic, about 8-10 minutes. Add the wine and cook for 3-4 minutes. Stir in the mustard and chicken stock. Add the pork belly and toss in the thyme and bay leaves. Cover and braise the belly until tender and succulent, about 5-6 hours. If necessary, add more stock and wine while cooking to retain the liquid level.

Remove from the oven and set the oven to broil. Once preheated, transfer the belly to a baking pan and broil until it turns golden, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, strain the vegetables and discard the herbs. Reduce the braising liquid over medium high heat. Transfer the pork to a cutting board, allow to rest for several minutes, carve and serve.

Gnocchi Mañana

September 6, 2011

Language is the dress of thought.
~Samuel Johnson

Those ethereal pillows, gnocchi, derive from the Italian word nocchio, (a knot in wood or gnarl) or even perhaps from nocca (knuckle). In the Venetian dialect, nocchio became gnoco and from there it transitioned to gnocco and its plural gnocchi.

The phonetics are sometimes mistreated. The palatal nasal “gn” phoneme which introduces the word, is transcribed as ɲ and does not really exist in English. It more approximates the Spanish sound ñ as in cañon or mañana. The consonantal sound ɲ can be produced by obstructing airflow in the vocal tract and articulated with the middle or back part of the tongue raised against the hard palate. Air is allowed to escape from the nose while vibrating the vocal cords during delivery.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol for this “gn” phoneme is ɲ with a notably leftward directed tail protruding from the bottom of the left stem of the letter. Cf n and ɲ. This symbol ɲ should also not be confused with ɳ, the symbol for the retroflex nasal sound, which has a rightward directed hook extending from the bottom of the right stem or with ŋ, the symbol for the velar nasal sound, which has a leftward directed hook extending from the bottom of the right stem.

The open-mid back rounded IPA vowel symbol ɔ sounds similar to the English vowels in “thought.” The ch sounds like k and the i is pronounced like a long e.

So just say it aloud, gnocchi [‘ɲɔkki], cook with aplomb, and savor these airy gems.

GNOCCHI WITH LEEKS & SERRANO

3 lbs. russet potatoes

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 extra large egg or 2 medium eggs
1-2 C all-purpose flour, as needed

1/2 lb. leeks, greens discarded, halved lengthwise, cut thinly into half moons
8 T (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 C chicken stock
1/2 T fennel seeds, toasted then finely ground

1/4 C serrano ham, diced
3 t fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated

Put the potatoes a large pot or saucepan of water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 35-40 minutes. Drain well. When still warm yet cool enough to handle, peel. Pass the flesh through a ricer or food mill and then spread onto a work surface.

Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a large pot, then season liberally with salt.

Season the cooled potatoes with salt and pepper. On the work surface, form the potatoes into a mound and make a well in the center. Sprinkle with the flour. Put the egg(s) into the well and use your fingers to blend into the potato until well incorporated. Using your hands, gently and gradually knead until the mixture forms a dough. Overkneading may make the dough tougher, so keep it to the minimum needed to obtain a uniform consistency, dusting extra flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface. Gather the dough into a ball. Do not overwork the dough or the end result will be tough. It should be firm and fairly dry to the touch.

Divide the dough into six balls, then roll each orb into long cylinders, each about 3/4″ in diameter. Use a paring knife to cut the ropes into 1″ pieces. Roll each piece along the back of a fork using the tines to form ridges in whose nooks and crannies the sauce finds refuge.

Ready an ice bath.

Drop gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they float to the surface, about 1-2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon and fish them out to the waiting ice bath. Drain well and transfer to a bowl for later.

In a large, heavy skillet, melt a half stick of the butter over low heat. Add the leeks and garlic and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Stir in the chicken stock, fennel, and the remaining butter. Cook over medium heat until reduced by half, about 7-9 minutes. Stir in the leeks, serrano, and parsley.

Add the gnocchi to sillet and coalesce with the remaining ingredients. Season with salt, pepper, and grated parmigiano-reggiano. Serve promptly.

GNOCCHI WITH GORGONZOLA & WALNUTS (GNOCCHI GORGONZOLA e NOCI)

3 T gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
3 T butter
6 T heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Grating of nutmeg
1/2 C walnuts, toasted roughly chopped

1 T fresh oregano leaves, julienned
Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add gorgonzola, butter, cream and walnuts with a pinch of black pepper and nutmeg. Mix together until the cheese is melted and the sauce becomes silky. Then add the walnuts and toss some further.

Cook gnocchi as above and toss into the gorgonzola sauce.

Sprinkle with parmigiano-reggiano and oregano.