The soul is healed by being with children.
~Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

A time to celebrate, venerate! No, not by those archetypal yuletide jingles or hallelujahs. Rather, a new luminous face will grace us in the not too distant future…a precious one from my oldest and his winsome partner. Another beloved generation begins rife with bliss and trial, and we rejoice. Félicitations à vous deux.

A festive North African dish which derives from the Arabic word šawa (“roasted on a fire”), méchoui is a whole spit roasted lamb. The lamb is sometimes buried in a pit or nestled in a specially designed subterranean oven. While there are regional variations, traditional méchoui is a nose-to-tail lamb cooked with the organs still inside the cavity, each lending their own distinct flavors. The term can even be applied to grilled vegetables and other meats prepared in a similar fashion.

I am not accoutred to roast an entire beast, but a shoulder will more than suffice. Lamb shoulder is such an amiable soul—blessed by succulent, abundant gelatin with savory bone, connective tissue, collagen and more than a little intramuscular fat. Best yet, it is less expensive than its ovine cousins, the leg and loin chops. The soulful, yet too often forsaken, shoulder need not suffer envy.

MECHOUI ROAST LAMB SHOULDER

One whole bone-in lamb shoulder, about 5-6 lbs
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and halved

2 T whole coriander seeds
1 1/2 T whole cumin seeds
2 t sweet paprika
1 t raw sugar
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1-2 T ras al hanout

2 T honey

Carefully trim any leathery, silverskin membrane and some of the excess fat from the exterior of the lamb, but leave a thin layer of fat to protect the meat from becoming dry. Rub the shoulder with the cut garlic cloves.

In a small, dry skillet set over medium low, toast the coriander and cumin and toast, while shaking the pan occasionally, until just fragrant and beginning to turn golden, about 2-3 minutes. Do not brown or burn. Let the spices cool slightly, then grind them to a coarse powder in a mortar or spice grinder. Transfer the powder to a small bowl and stir in the paprika and sugar. Crush the garlic cloves with the flat of a chef’s knife, sprinkle on some sea salt, and mince well. Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil on the garlic and mash continuously with the knife, rubbing and pressing to make a soft purée. Add the garlic paste to the spices and then work in the butter until evenly mixed.

Make a dozen 1″ deep punctures in the meaty parts of the lamb. Rub the lamb all over with ras al hanout, then the seasoned butter, smearing some into the incisions. Set the lamb in a large glass baking dish and refrigerate overnight, loosely covered. Let the lamb sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour before roasting.

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Place the lamb in a large roasting pan or dish, skin side up. Roast for 25 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325 F and continue roasting, basting throughout with any pan drippings, until the meat is tender and beginning to fall off the bone, about another 2 1/2 to 3 hours. During the last hour drizzle the top with honey. The meat thermometer should register 145 F when the lamb is done to medium rare, but the shoulder should be cooked longer so that it can be shredded with forks.

Place the lamb on a carving board with a trough, tent loosely with foil, and allow to rest for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, pour off any excess fat from the roasting pan. Place the pan over medium high heat on the stove, add about 1/2 cup of wine or water, scrape up the bits and stir with a wooden spatula to reduce. Drizzle the reduced pan drippings over the meat and serve.

Accompany with dried apricot and currant couscous a dollop of Greek whole milk yogurt and a small bowl of harissa, a classic hot pepper paste.

Pourboire: recipes for ras al hanout, couscous and harissa can be found within by using the search box.

Repeat that again…for it has the distinct ring of a pleonasm. A word excess that resonates from screens across the country during NFL Inc.’s couch potato dance. After each disputed or scoring play this distracting phrase echoes over and over again.

Pleonasm: (pli:ənæzəm), n, the use of more words than necessary to express an idea; redundancy. In English, it appeared first during the late 16th century, and was derived from Late Latin pleonasmus, from Greek pleonasmós (“too much”), from pleonazein (“to be more than enough”), from pleon (“more”), comp. of polys (“much”). Neoplasms are antonyms of oxymora. A few examples–advance reservations, basic fundamentals, commute back and forth, consensus of opinion, join together, advance warning, surrounded on all sides, regular routine, merge together, unexpected surprise, wept tears, various and sundry, proactive planning, ATM machine.

Because Thanksgiving is more a culinary celebration and is not quite so mired down in religious overtones or lavish shopping odysseys, it is my favored holiday. Although there is that deserved guilt associated with decimating, exploiting and transforming an entire Native American culture…extinguishing entire indigenous populations across millions of square miles of land. A shameless conquest of epic proportions that has been buried in our history texts and banished from our collective conscience. Anglophilic revisionism again perseveres.

Consider serving this side dish of gratitude as part of your T-Day feast.

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS WITH POTATOES, CELERIAC & LEEKS

1-2 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Butter, unsalted

2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, white and pale green parts sliced thinly crosswise
2 T unsalted butter
1 t dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 lbs baking potatoes, preferably russets, peeled and very thinly sliced crosswise
1 celery root, peeled and very thinly sliced crosswise

2+ C grated gruyère cheese
1+ C heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 F

Melt butter 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced leeks, thyme, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and translucent, about 8 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Set leeks aside in a bowl.

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

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

Fennel & Fertile Figs

November 16, 2011

And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they saw that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
~The Bible, Genesis 3:7

A moist, cleft, ripe, dehiscent, succulent fruit. Long a sacred symbol of fertility, the common fig (Ficus carica) is a deciduous tree which was first cultivated in the fecund triangle between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia. From there, figs spread through Asia Minor and Arab lands ultimately making their way to India and China and thence by way of Phoenician and Greek sailors, throughout the Mediterranean basin. The plants were first introduced to the New World, notably the West Indies and South American west coast, by Spanish and Portugese missionaries in the early 16th century. Figs were then imported to Mexico and coursed up to California where Franciscan missionaries planted them in mission gardens.

The word fig first came into English early in the 13th century, from the Norman Old French figue, itself from Vulgar Latin fica, from Latin ficus—still the proper botanical genus name of fig trees. The Latin word is related to the Greek sykon or σῦκον meaning “fig” or “vulva” and the Phoenician pagh “half-ripe fig.”

The fig sign (mano fico) can prove knotty in some social circles. It is made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers, forming a clenched fist with the thumb partly peering out. Likely of Roman origin, it was displayed as a positive gesture to encourage fertility and ward away evil. Apparently, demons were so repelled by the notion of eroticism and reproduction that they fled at the sign. In a few locales, this hand gesture is still a sign of good luck, but in many others it is considered an obscene, disparaging insult. While the precise reason for this nuancal dichotomy is unknown, many historians posit that this fist depicts female genitalia (fica is Italian slang for “vulva”) and others see an image of sexual union in the making. How could either be thought obscene? Always consider your audience, I suppose.

FENNEL, ONION & FIG PIZZA

Pizza dough (see below)

2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1/2 C yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 t sugar
1 medium fennel bulb, outer leaves removed, cored and thinly sliced
8-10 fresh figs, sliced

Pinch of lemon zest
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 T fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 lb taleggio cheese, rind removed and sliced thinly

Walnuts, coarsely chopped and toasted
Parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 500 F with pizza stone inside hot oven at least 30 minutes.

In a large, heavy skillet heat olive oil over medium heat. Add smashed garlic, stirring, until only light brown. Remove and discard. Then, add sliced onions and sugar and stir occasionally, about 5-6 minutes. Add the sliced fennel, reduce heat to medium low, another 5-6 minutes. Cover and cook gently, stirring often, until the fennel and onion are tender, sweet and beginning to caramelize, about 15 minutes. Uncover, add sliced figs and cook an additional 2-3 minutes. Add lemon zest, nutmeg, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Stir together gently and remove from heat.

Roll out dough on a lightly corn mealed or floured surface. Lightly brush with olive oil.

Evenly arrange the taleggio slices on the pizza dough, leaving the border uncovered. Arrange the onion-fennel-fig mixture on top.

Bake the pizza, until just golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. When cooked, finish with toasted walnuts and immediately garnish with a light drizzle of olive oil and a delicate dose of grated parmigiano reggiano.

Pizza Dough

Extra virgin olive oil to coat bowl

1 C warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast packet
1 T organic honey

3+ C all purpose flour
1 t sea salt
3 T extra virgin olive oil

Pour warm water into small bowl; stir in yeast and honey until it dissolves. Let stand until yeast activates and forms foam or bubbles on the surface, about 5 minutes.

Rub large bowl lightly with olive oil. Mix flour and salt in stand up, heavy duty mixer equipped with flat paddle. Add yeast mixture, flour, salt and olive oil; mix on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Refit mixer with dough hook and process at medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic—or transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead dough by hand until smooth. Kneading helps develop strength and elasticity in the dough. During this step, add more flour by spoonfuls if dough is too sticky. Work dough with hands into a smooth ball.

Transfer to large oiled bowl, turning dough until fully coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then a dishtowel and let dough rise in warm draft free area until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes for quick rising yeast and about twice that for regular yeast. Punch down dough and work with hands into a smooth ball. Cut and divide into two rounded equal balls.

Place dough on well floured board or large work surface and roll out, starting in center and working outward toward edges but not rolling over them. Roll the dough to roughly 12 inches in diameter, but always feel free to create any shape to your liking or whim. Transfer to a pizza paddle which is dusted in either cornmeal or flour so it can slide off easily into the oven.

Pourboire: consider crumbling some goat cheese, such as some Bûcheron, over the pie before you slip it into the oven; or bring some sautéed proscuitto into the mix.

Armistice Day & Soup

November 12, 2011

There never was a good war, or a bad peace.
~Benjamin Franklin

11.11.11.11.11—it turned 11:11am on November 11, 2011. The War To End All Wars, World War I, ended 93 years ago yesterday.

The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest on November 11, 1918 near 5:00am, but was not effective until 11:00am that same day, allowing commanders to spread the word along the fronts. The inglorious eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The Armistice was executed in a carriage of Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s private train, CIWL #2419 (Le Wagon de l’Armistice), and terms addressed such issues as the prompt cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German troops to behind their borders, prisoner exchanges, promises of reparations, the internment of the German fleet, and the surrender of munitions. A fragile peace had been reached.

By the time the Armistice had been signed, military and civilian casualties stood at some 35 million. The French countryside had been decimated—buildings, homes, farms even entire villages were leveled; armies would soon leave behind devastated factories, bridges, roads, railroads; shell craters punctured pastures as far as the eye could see with unexploded munitions scattered everywhere; solitary torn, burnt trees strained to rise above the rubble; stiff horse and livestock carcasses lay motionless far and wide; wrecked tanks, gnarled helmets, barbed wire, twisted scrap iron in all shapes were surreally strewn on barren land; and abandonned trenches after trenches were bizarrely carved into once fertile fields. A post-apocalyptic, almost lunar landscape.

And sadly, the final day of World War I still produced nearly 11,000 troop casualties; more than those amassed on D-Day, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of occupied Normandy less than three decades later.

Precious young life and limb was lost on this last half-day when some field commanders, knowing that an Armistice had already been signed, insisted on forging ahead in battle. Major General William Wright, of the 89th American Division, was one such culprit. Having received word that there were bathing facilities in the nearby village of Stenay, he ordered his men to storm the town just so his exhausted, filthy troops could refresh themselves. The town would have been peaceably handed over to these forces in a matter of hours. Wright’s lunacy cost some 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for reasons beyond comprehension.

That same day in the nearby Argonne region, American private Henry Gunther was part of a pointless, inexplicable charge against astonished German troops who knew the Armistice was about to occur. Ironically of German descent, he was shot dead less than a minute before 11:00am on that day. Pvt. Gunther carries the infamous label as the last soldier to be killed in action in World War I…and senselessly so.

It is a somber day. While vets should doubtless be honored for their sacrifices and losses, it should also be remembered that the predominant victims of modern warfare are civilians, not soldiers. World War I began that inexorable trend toward considerably more innocent men, women and children dying in war than combatants (without even taking into account the untold civilian displacement, disease, destitution, and famine). Those disregarded, soon forgotten and collaterally caught in the crossfire tend to suffer most.

How to rise from such gloom? Breaking bread is a start. Food nags us at times of both celebration and sorrow. A simple meal is sustenance, ritual, comfort, even quiet joy…a gentle, peaceful kiss. So, please share some primordial fare.

MUSHROOM & ROOT SOUP

2 T dried mushrooms (porcini, morels or shitakes)
1/2 C chicken stock + 1/2 C water, heated

3 T butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, trimmed and roughly chopped
2 medium parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium celeriac, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
3 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 C chicken broth

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lb wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Pinch of dried thyme

Fresh chives
Crème fraîche

Soak the dried mushrooms in the warm stock and water about 20 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed. Reserve the soaking liquid as well.

Melt the butter and olive oil in a deep heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leek, parsnips, celeriac, carrot, thyme and bay leaf. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks are soft, translucent and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Then, add the broth and the soaked dried mushrooms. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to a quiet simmer.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a large, heavy skillet. When the oil is shimmering and hot, add the wild mushrooms, stirring with a wooden spoon, and allow to just lightly brown. Season with salt and pepper, then turn the heat to medium and sauté 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms are just soft and cooked through. Add the garlic and thyme and cook 1 minute more.

Add the sautéed mushrooms to the soup and allow to simmer until the parsnips, celeriac and carrot are tender, about 15 minutes or so.

Discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Purée the soup in a food processor fitted with a steel knife, a blender or even an immersion stick. Correct the seasoning and thin with the mushroom soaking liquid and/or broth, if necessary.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls. Garnish with chives and a drizzle of crème fraîche. Serve with toasted baguette slices.

Pescatarian Purée

November 4, 2011

A humorless, but not tasteless, post.

Edamame 枝豆 which literally translates as “twig or branch beans” are large-seeded, immature soybeans in the pod. Often served boiled or steamed, straight up in the pod sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Edamame (Glycine max L.) grow in clusters on bushy branches, and the beans are plucked in the pod at the peak of ripening.

A wonder veg teeming with nutrients. Edamame is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids and is a fecund source of protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, folate, essential fatty acids, and isoflavones.

Serve over or under sashimi, cured yellowtail, seared tuna or scallops, or maybe drizzled on a fish taco. When shucked, they also splendidly compliment salads, rice or risotto…to name a scant few.

EDAMAME & HORSERADISH PUREE

2 C edamame, shelled
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 t sugar
2 t ushukuchi (light soy sauce)
1/4 C fresh horseradish, peeled and grated
Water

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Meanwhile, prepare ice water bath in a large mixing bowl. Blanch edamame for 30 seconds, spoon out and toss them into the cold bath. Then, drain and set aside, reserving 2 tablespoons of whole beans for plating. Transfer remaining edamame to a processor fitted with a metal blade or a blender and add salt, sugar, soy sauce, horseradish and enough water to create a purée. Process in pulses until very smooth, adding water if necessary. Taste for seasoning.

For looks, finish with a scattering of the reserved edamame beans.

Classical thermodynamics…is the only physical theory of universal content which I am convinced…will never be overthrown.
~Albert Einstein

The chemistry of a soufflé is relatively simple. First the yolks (mostly fats) are separated from the whites or albumen (more proteins) which uncoil their spiral shapes as they are beaten until just stiff, a process called denaturation. The egg white proteins latch onto one another and create a miniscule web of trapped air bubbles. Actually, the protein in the egg whites forms a kind of skin around these bubbles.

When the yolks and whites are gently folded together and the batter is heated, the air bubbles expand and give the soufflé its almost gravity-defying puffed up architecture. Obeying the laws of thermodynamics which study the relation between heat and energy, the soufflé follows the natural tendency for things to move from order towards chaos and randomness. (The 2nd Rule at work.) After rising, with even slight cooling—energy is lost, entropy ensues and that fateful collapse occurs.

Served immediately, a Grand Marnier soufflé is breathtaking.

GRAND MARNIER SOUFFLE

1/3 C all-purpose flour
1/4 C sugar
1 C milk

2 T butter
5 large egg yolks
3 T Grand Marnier

Butter, for greasing
Sugar

5 large egg whites
1 1/2 T sugar

Confectioner’s sugar
Orange zest

Preheat oven to 375 F

In a small heavy saucepan, whisk the flour and sugar together. In another small heavy saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle simmer. Slowly add the hot milk to the flour mixture, whisking until smooth. Place over medium heat and stir until the mixture simmers and thickens. Stir in the butter, then the egg yolks, one at a time, and then the Grand Marnier. Allow the mixture to cool.

Butter an 8″ soufflé dish and roll the sugar around in it to fully cover the bottom and sides, tapping out any excess. Using a stand up or hand mixer, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, and then gradually beat in the sugar. Beat just until the whites are stiff but not dry. Slowly fold the beaten whites into the soufflé base, until just blended. Turn the mixture into the soufflé dish.

Place the soufflé dish in a baking dish, and add enough hot water to come about 1/2″ up the side of the soufflé dish. Bake until the soufflé has risen just over the rim and is lightly browned, but is still jiggly in the center, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and orange zest. Serve promptly.