Pleb Grub — Bean Stew

December 22, 2011

We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.
~Hon. Louis Dembitz Brandeis, United States Supreme Court Justice

Given the season, a mirthful post seemed more in order, like prattling about some trendy or classic dish to grace the family’s holiday table. But, for the last few decades I have sadly read about and observed the parallel surges of excessive wealth and abject poverty which threaten to inexorably still this already declining young republic. America has allowed profligate inequality to flourish, and I felt an urge to disgorge and then stew.

America has become a blatantly entrenched plutocracy: 1% of the people take home nearly one quarter of the nation’s income, and 1% of the people control nearly 40% of the nation’s wealth.

Somber socio-economic stats, and there are more. From 1980 to 2005, more than 80% of the total increase in American income was allotted to the richest 1 percent. The ratio of the average income of the nation’s “upper crust” to the median household income has skyrocketed since The Gipper took office. The richest 1% of Americans’ household income rose 275% between 1979 and 2007, while the income of the poorest one-fifth grew 18% over the same period.

In 1965, the average CEO earned 24 times more than the average worker. Just forty years later, the average CEO in the United States receives 262 times the pay of the average worker. Starkly reduced to dollars and cents, Walmart’s CEO will earn more in the next hour than a new hourly employee will earn over the next year. Toward the end of GW’s reign, careless executives who selfishly brought our economy to brink of ruin, even those who presided over failed corporations, demanded prompt bailouts from the citizenry while continuing to gorge on obscene compensation packages including embarassingly lavish, undeserved “performance” bonuses. The financial arena, ie., Wall Street, has been particularly blameworthy. My father used to mutter that “no person is worth $1M per year.” While that sum may be a tad understated in today’s market, financial house and other CEO salaries and bonuses seem to bespeak of nothing more than bloated egos.

One third or more of Americans exist at or are precipitously close to the federal poverty level which is a paltry $22,350 for a family of four. That’s called plenty of nothing for no one. And on any given night, some 750,000 men, women, and children are homeless in this land.

When compared, income inequality in this country borders on downright shameful. The United States continues to outpace other developed economies with one of the greatest divides between rich and poor on earth. Our nation ranks near the bottom feeder end of the inequality scale keeping company with the likes of Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ecuador. Income levels here are more unequal than those in Russia, which in the last century alone has endured three popular revolutions to overthrow dreaded oligarchies, a devastating world war, and lengthy bread lines throughout. A more unequal distribution of wealth exists here than in those traditional banana republics we have so maligned in the past like Nicaragua or Venezuela. Simply put, income inequality is more severe in this country than in nearly all of West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia.

To worsen matters, while the income and wealth gaps grow here, this country continues to fall further behind other industrialized countries in education, research, health care, child well-being, technology and infrastructure investment. Lagging in these vitals, these fundamentals, while suffering from wealth disparity are ominous signs of a declining society.

The vexing schism between the ultra rich and the rest of the nation has undeniably broadened. An unsavory me-first mentality has emerged with short or no shrift given to notions of fairness and the social contract. Alex de Toqueville once observed that the genius of American society was founded upon “self interest properly understood.” This collective national empathy with an eye toward the common welfare has rapidly waned while wealth has been steadily concentrating in upper echelons. The sense of national identity in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community is on the verge of being lost. It has been replaced by a sense of inequity, sometimes even iniquity. As Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow remarked, “Vast inequalities of income weakens a society’s sense of mutual concern…The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization.”

There is precedent, as wealth inequalities existed in civilizations long since in ruin. Yet even the Roman Empire, a class structured society of haves and have nots (including slaves), had a more equitable distribution of income than current America. Historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen poured over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages to assess income distribution in the Roman Empire. Much like this country, a story of two ancient Romes emerged, one hoarding substantial wealth and the other subsiding on meager wages or facing poverty. Those who barely got by were paid just enough to survive daily but never enough to prosper. Others starved.

Professors Schiedel and Friesen concluded that when the empire was at its population zenith (about 150 CE), the top 1% of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, contrasted with the top 1% of Americans controlling 40 percent. An imperial ancient empire ruled by an emperor and elite few, based upon conquests overseas, conceived of an expected inequality of income between classes and requiring a robust slave population had less wealth disparity than today’s United States.

The recent income and wealth disparities in this country were not happenstance. In 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, a board member of the tobacco giant Philip Morris and soon a United States Supreme Court Justice, sent a confidential memorandum to his friends at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. In it, he railed against the “attack on the American free enterprise system” not just from a few “extremists of the left,” but also from “perfectly respectable elements of society.” He urged the Chamber to place the media under surveillance and also advocated that political power must be “assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination” and “without embarrassment.”

Powell envisaged new think tanks and legal foundations which when united with the Chamber and corporate America could wield immense political power. Once circulated amongst nation’s boardrooms, there was a call to arms and the Chamber arranged a task force of businesses whose charge was to coordinate this corporate crusade. The Chamber soon tripled its budget, aggressive conservative think tanks and foundations mushroomed, right-wing lobbying efforts were magnified, and political power was brandished to discourage economic equality and shared prosperity. The Repbulican Party would now begin to take a decidedly rightward lurch.

William Simon, who had served as Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, later published a manifesto entitled A Time for Truth argued that “funds generated by business” must “rush by multimillions” into conservative causes to uproot the institutions and “the heretical strategy” of the New Deal. He asked “men of action in the capitalist world” to mount “a veritable crusade” against progressives. With nearly limitless funds, they embarked on a jihad to embellish corporate rights, purchase candidates, curry legislative favor, procure lobbyists, garner power, espouse rightist ideologies, sway public opinion, amass the country’s wealth, etc. Imperiously, they have proclaimed “it worked!” But, truly did it or will it?

Economic studies suggest that rapacious income inequality leads to more financial distress. Stated otherwise, greater income equality positively correlates with stronger economic growth. An economy like America’s where each year commoners are doing worse, not better, will not succeed in the long run. This country’s income distribution has grown decidedly lopsided, and growing inequality has tranlated to shrinking opportunities. Discouragingly, the fundamental idea of upward mobility has faded, causing the proverbial American dream to disappear.

To suggest that such extreme financial inequity was neither contrived by the wealthy nor exists in today’s America are both opinions that range between naïveté and arrogant ignorance. These egregious inequalities are not only economically inimical but morally repulsive. Rapacious greed is not good—it is plunder. And please do not crassly slough fiscal inequality off as simply lower caste “envy” like a myopic, flip-flopping oligarch has. Yes, you Willard. The indigent should be take umbrage at and be righteously indignant about such haughty, heartless rhetoric.

Unless compromises are reached to explore and secure reforms to assuage this dire problem, I fear that our republic will be reduced to rubble too. Economic injustice tends to sire revolt. Equanimity and empathy, not egocentric upper class partisanship, are in desperate need.

Food calls. This is a divine winter stew that works in a pinch.

CHICKEN, SAUSAGE & BEAN STEW

2-3 Italian sausages, sliced 3/4″ thick, diagonally

5 lbs chicken parts (wings, backs, necks, gizzards, hearts)
1 1/2 lbs navy or white beans, picked over and rinsed
2 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in halves
2 celery stalks, peeled and chopped in halves
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped in halves
1 small turnip, peeled and chopped in quarters
1 medium parsnip, peeled and chopped in half
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 C chicken stock
8 C cold water

Fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high. Add the sausage and brown, about 5 minutes. Do not overcook as they will be reheated later. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Set aside. Wipe the pot out with a towel.

Put the chicken in same large pot, and add beans, onions, celery, carrots, turnip, parsnip, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper, stock and water. Bring to a boil, then skim the foam off the surface. Cover, reduce the heat to a lively simmer and cook about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. With tongs, remove the chicken pieces from pot and place in a bowl to cool some. With a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables, garlic and herbs. Discard the garlic and herbs only. Reserve the vegetables in a bowl too.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull off the meat and discard the skin and bones. There should be about 2 1/2 cups of meat. Coarsely chop the onions, celery, carrots, turnip, and parsnip. Slice the gizzards and hearts. Add the vegetables, chicken and sausage to the pot and carefully mix with the cooked beans. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook until heated, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serve in bowls garnished with fresh parsley.

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Life loves the liver of it.
~Maya Angelou

‘Tis the season of faith and piety, right? You know, the three magi bowing before baby Jesus, the supplicant Dickensian Tim Cratchit with his tiny crutch and papa Claus. Nah, probably more like the days of buying, indulgence, inebrity, gluttony, and more consumption. Then repeat. The seven deadlies run amok. So agnostics and atheists alike, during the holidays perhaps you should shelve your skepticism and come forward to become a liver believer. I joined that sacred sect long ago.

Sidled up to silky scrambled eggs, perched atop tomato rubbed bruschetta, over polenta, nestled with capellini alfredo, rice pilaf or hearty and hued lentils, the much maligned but ever versatile chicken liver is flat heavenly–and that was just a short list. Savor these divine orbs, and you will be genuflecting, even tebowing (god forbid), in no time. Praise be to them.

SAUTEED CHICKEN LIVERS

2 lbs chicken livers, halved and trimmed

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 C shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C apple cider vinegar
2 C chicken stock, reduced by half

1 T unsalted butter, softened
1 T all purpose flour

Fresh tarragon or parsley leaves, chopped

With your fingers, knead together the softened butter and flour in order to create a beurre manié

In a small saucepan, reduce the chicken stock by half to 1 cup.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Drop the chicken livers into a sieve and carefully lower them into the boiling water. Stirring some, allow to blanche for about 20 seconds. Remove and allow to drain.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium high until foaming but not browning. Add the livers in one layer, salt and pepper, and sauté for about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with paper towels.

Add the sliced shallots to the same skillet and sauté over medium heat until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the apple cider vinegar bring to a gentle boil, and reduce to a glaze. Add the reduced stock and bring to a lively simmer. With a whisk, add the beurre manié a dollop at a time until the sauce thickens. Add the livers and warm.

Serve strewn with chopped tarragon leaves.

Pad Thai Sans Nuts

December 7, 2011

Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day
Chatting with my messmates, passing time away
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees
Goodness, how delicious, eatin’ goober peas
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eatin’ goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!
~P. Nutt (A.E. Blackmar)

Earthnuts, ground nuts, monkey nuts, pygmy nuts, pig nuts—peanuts are not nuts.

Despite the name, peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are a dehiscent legume in the family Fabaceae, related to peas, lentils, chickpeas and friends. They are composed of a curved single seed-bearing carpel that splits open along two seams.

Native to South America, peanuts were domesticated some 8,000 years ago when pre-Columbian cultures dined on and even depicted them in art. When Spanish conquistadors invaded Mesoamerica they found the Aztecs growing peanuts the locals called tlalcacahuatl.

In the early 16th century, Portuguese traders took peanuts from South America to Africa where they became highly revered and flourished as a staple crop. Around colonial times, slave traders reversed the course and shipped them along with wretchedly stowed human cargo to North America. In one central African language, Kikongo, the word for peanut is nguba which morphed into the vernacular “goober” peas.

From the better half of the scientific name, hypogaea derives from Greek for underground, combining hypo “under” + gaia Greek “earth.” An annual herbaceous plant growing some 1′-2′ tall, peanuts begin as an above ground orange-veined, yellow-petaled flower. The flower is produced near the base of a slender pedicel (peduncle, stalk) that curves downward.

After pollination, the flower withers and cells beneath the ovary begin to develop a peg that helps force the ovary into the ground. The curved pedicel elongates, bends down to kiss the moist earth, and then forces the ovary underground. The peg has a cap of cells that protects the delicate ovary as the pedicle thrusts into the fertile soil. Continued growth then plunges the ovary under further where a tiny embryonic plant with two tender, fleshy halves develop, and the mature fruit becomes a legume pod. What a resplendent, albeit a bit forcible, act. Oh baby, oh baby.

Once the subterranean, seed-bearing pod matures, functional roots and photosynthetic leaves emerge. The pod coat changes color from white to a reddish brown with wrinkled, veined shells that are constricted between pairs of usually two seeds per pod. The entire bush, including root growth, is removed from the soil and the pods are allowed to dry. After the peanuts have dried sufficiently, they are threshed, removing the pods from the rest of the bush. The beans are then roasted to become those dried, wrinkled, vein-cloaked, seed bearing carpels we know and love.

Today, thousands of peanut cultivars are grown, with the more common groups being Spanish, Virginia, and Valencia. A source of monounsaturated fats, peanuts feature an array of other nutrients including vitamin E, niacin, folate, protein, manganese, and even lifespan extending resveratrol. Not only do peanuts contain oleic acid, they are rich in antioxidants.

Centuries old, now ubiquitous Pad Thai (“fried Thai style”) was originally made with a noodle brought by Vietnamese traders to the ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. It became popularized in the 1930’s as part of a campaign of nationalist fervor and an effort to reduce rice consumption as the economy had become overly dependent on rice exports. The trendy dish has so many variants, particular as pertains to the progression of ingredients into the hot wok with timing being everything.

I might suggest you arrange the ingredients mise en place and not make too many servings at once until you find your dance steps.

PAD THAI

6 ozs rice stick noodles (banh pho)

3-4 T tamarind paste
1/4 C nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
1/3 C honey
2 T rice vinegar
Pinch of red pepper flakes or Thai chile powder

3 T peanut oil
1/2 C chopped scallions, chopped
2-3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2-3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 small head Napa cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1 C mung bean sprouts
1/2 lb small shrimp, peeled
4-6 ozs tofu, cut into 1/2″ strips

1/2 C roasted peanuts, chopped
1/4 C fresh cilantro, stemmed and chopped
2 limes, quartered

Mix tamarind paste, fish sauce, honey and vinegar in a small saucepan over medium low heat and bring just to a simmer. Stir in red pepper flakes or Thai chile powder and set aside, keeping warm.

Put noodles in a large bowl and add hot water to cover. By far, the trickiest part is the soaked noodles. They should be just tender yet still solid, not completely expanded and soft. When in doubt, undersoak.

Put one tablespoon peanut oil in a large wok over high heat and when oil shimmers, add the tofu and cook until crisp and lightly brown, moving constantly, about 1 minute. Remove the tofu from the pan to a small bowl and set aside.

Keep wok hot, add the remainder of peanut oil, then scallions and garlic and cook for about a minute. Add eggs to pan, and once they begin to set, scramble until just barely done. Add cabbage, shrimp and bean sprouts and continue to cook until cabbage just begins to wilt and shrimp begins to turn pink.

Add drained noodles to pan along with tamarind sauce and tofu. Toss everything together to coat with sauce and combine well. When noodles are softened and warmed through, serve in shallow soup bowls, sprinkling each dish with peanuts and garnishing with cilantro and lime wedges.

Too marvelous for words…
~Johnny Mercer

Seemed a plebeian enough task, almost like blurting out a blurb. Share a recipe of eggs poached in red wine with lardons and mushrooms served over croûtes and then explain the origins of a feminine French noun, meurette. Apparently, that slighted the fickle temperaments of the word gods.

Meurette derives from the Latin word muriae, muria (brine, salt liquor, pickling), but the earliest known usage in French a matter of debate. Some cite the 15th century, others claim it came into parlance centuries later. Already a cryptic dude. A culinary term, meurette refers to a certain red wine sauce ladled over fish and eggs.

Ironically, before the 19th century the use of red wine in French gastronomy was relatively scant. This from the land of such red wine braised classics as coq au vin, boeuf à la bourguignon, and daube d’agneau? No doubt due to regional viniculture, Burgundians were unusually ardent about adding red wine to dishes—enough so that any dish à la bourguignon came to mean “braised with red wine.” Or perhaps the cooks were just carefree sots.

Matelote (sometimes spelled matelotte) was a robust, rustic freshwater fish stew made with red wine and stock often served at inns along the rivers. Eel, trout, carp, perch, pike, et al., could grace your soup bowl. The dish made a splash in Parisian cookbooks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The authors commonly used the term matelote not meurette to describe both fish stew and eggs in red wine sauces.

[Matelote literally means “sailor’s wife” from the masculine maletot, from Middle French matenot “sailor, bunkmate,” from Middle Dutch mattenoot “bed companion,” probably from Old Norse mǫtunautr “mate.” Matelow, as pronounced in French, also happens to be a lower class seaman in the British navy.]

Then, a digression and inexplicable leap occurred. Almost sans rime ni raison, meurette entered onto the scene and mysteriously became synonymous with, and nearly displaced, matelote. Abracadabra…the esoteric seemed to overtake the standard. How and why this perplexing word detour occurred is a question for obscure linguists. So, Burgundian red wine sauce or ragoût served with fish and eggs came to be known as meurette.

All this word origin palaver is soon forgotten once a pierced yolk oozes into the deep red sauce and then lazily courses over crisp lardons, scrumptious ‘shrooms and garlicky croûtes. Ambrosial.

OEUFS EN MEURETTE (EGGS POACHED IN RED WINE)

1 bottle (750 ml) dry red wine
1 C chicken stock
1 C beef stock

6-8 large fresh eggs

1 bay leaf
1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, sliced
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 small yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 ozs crimini and shittake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
6 ozs bacon, sliced into lardons
2-3 T unsalted butter

2 T unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 T all-purpose flour

Artisanal bread, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
2-3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and halved

2 T chopped fresh tarragon leaves

In a medium bowl, knead the butter and flour together with your fingers to form a paste (beurre manié). Set aside.

Lightly coat a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat and coat with olive oil. Sauté bread until lightly golden brown on both sides. Immediately rub croûtes on one side with cut side of garlic. Tent loosely and set aside.

Bring the wine and stocks to a gentle simmer in a deep sauté pan. Gently crack the eggs into a small flared cup, slip into the wine and stock and poach until the whites are set and the yolks soft and almost runny, about 3 minutes. Trim off the stringy edges with scissors and set the eggs aside. Remove to a small platter.

Spoon out any egg white debris and bring the wine and stock back to a boil. Add the bay leaf, carrot, celery, garlic, onion, thyme, salt and pepper. Simmer until reduced by half and concentrated, about 20 minutes. Strain, retain the sauce and discard the solids.

While the sauce reduces, put one-half of the butter and olive oil into a heavy skillet over medium high heat and sauté the mushrooms, about 3-4 minutes. Remove the mushrooms to a bowl and set aside, wiping the pan clean with a paper towel. Then, add the remainder of the butter and cook the bacon until just slightly brown. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Whisk just enough of the beurre manié, one clump at a time, into the simmering sauce until thick enough to coat a spoon. Bring the sauce to a lively simmer, and check the seasonings. With a slotted spoon gently lower the poached eggs into the sauce only to briefly reheat, about 30 aeconds. Remove and serve the eggs in shallow bowls over croûtes, garnish with mushrooms, bacon and spoon over the sauce. Scatter the chopped tarragon over the top.