Hearts, of Palm

October 30, 2012

The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.
~Blaise Pascal

A jaunt southward toward misty cloud forests.

Hearts of palm are harvested from the soft inner cores and growing buds (apical meristems) of palm trees notably the palmito, açaí, huasaí, juçara, sabal, and pejibaye varieties. They thrive in tropical climes, needing some 150″ of annual rainfall each year to flourish, and are harvested when the plant is about 5-6′ tall and 4″ in diameter. To harvest hearts of palm, a young tree must be felled and the bark (along with the fibrous outer layers) peeled away to reveal the inner softer core. Once the core is removed from the tree, the tubular white heart is cut into smaller sections, each a few inches long, ready to be sold fresh or, as is more often the case, canned. Unfortunately, the harvesting process of most wild palms results in tree death. Because they have only one stem, extracting the inner core kills the plant. So, several palm species have been domesticated which produce multiple stems, allowing farmers to reap them while allowing the tree to live.

A delicacy in Latin and South American cuisine, they are also heralded in France which remains an exuberant importer of hearts of palm (coeurs de palmier). Hearts of palm are tubular, have an ivory hue and impart tender, subtle flavors–strikingly similar to artichokes. They are often seen with a myriad of greens, and also make appearances sautéed, puréed, braised, steamed, fried, marinated, on pizzas, in pastas, soups, and so on.

HEARTS OF PALM WITH AVOCADOES & OLIVES

2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 C fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 C fresh lemon juice
2 t Dijon mustard
1 t honey
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 C extra virgin olive oil

14 oz can hearts of palm, drained
4 ripe Hass avocados
3/4 C Niçoise olives, pitted, sliced
Scallion greens, sliced across in half, then thinly lengthwise
Boston or bibb lettuce leaves or arugula

In a blender or processor fitted with a steel knife, purée garlic and cilantro with lemon juice, mustard, honey, salt and pepper. While blade is running or after adding the mixture to a medium glass bowl, add olive oil in a narrow stream, blending or whisking until dressing is emulsified.

Cut hearts of palm and avocado into 3/4″ cubes and very gently fold together with olives and scallion greens and enough vinaigrette to coat in a large glass bowl until combined well.

Line chilled salad plates with lettuce leaves or arugula and mound hearts of palm-avocado-olive mixture on top.

As I kissed her the heat of her body increased, and it exhaled a wild, untamed fragrance.
~Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

“Keep it simple, stupid” is an oft heard maxim coined by Kelly Johnson, famed systems engineer and aeronautical innovator. A mise en place freak. The KISS principle often reigns over the kitchen. So many toothsome cuisines — from Italian to South American to Malaysian to French to South Asian to Chinese to Russian to Singaporese to Southeast Asian to Latin American to Japanese to African, and so on — pursue the simplest solutions and tread the simplest paths with both components and techniques. By now, we know a simple plate is far from boring or dull. Food that is nothing more and nothing less than simplicity mastered with hints of restraint.

Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), aka sunroots or sunchokes, are actually a perennial sunflower native to North America. Fleshy rhizomes (underground stems) bear small tubers which are elongated and uneven, vaguely resembling ginger root. They vary in color from pale brown to white, red or purple. Sun chokes are subterranean tubers which are more difficult to harvest than potatoes because the tubers cling to the roots and become intertwined. Cultivated varieties of sunchokes grow in clumps close to the main rhizome while wild ones grow at the end of root. They can grow from 3-12 feet high with large leaves and flowers that are 1 1/2-3″ in diameter.

Sunchokes were discovered growing wild on the eastern seaboard in pre-colonial days. Samuel de Champlain first encountered sunchokes growing in an Indian garden in Cape Cod in the early 17th century. Because he likened them to artichokes, he dubbed them so. Native Americans called them sunroots and introduced these perennial tubers to the pilgrims who adopted them as a staple. Apparently the French began growing these tubers successfully because they were sold by Parisian street vendors who named them topinambours, the French word for tuber. The origin of the nomenclature “Jerusalem” is rather hazy, although some surmise the name to be a corruption of the Italian griasole, which translates as “turning to the sun.”

I was graced with some of these divine gnarly knots by a kind farmer at the city market, and they are well worth the short trip from oven to table. Simple enough. So, when served or later, don’t forget to KISS the cook…wherever.  If you are cooking/eating solo, just use your imagination.

ROASTED JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

1 lbs+ Jerusalem artichokes, cleaned and halved
Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh thyme leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F

In a large glass bowl, drizzle halved artichokes with olive oil, working them gently with your fingers (the world’s greatest kitchen tool). Spread oiled artichokes on a sheet pan lined with foil. Sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves and season with salt and pepper. Roast until fork tender, about 40-45 minutes.  Of course, cooking time will vary depending on your oven and artichoke size.

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES + BALSAMIC VINEGAR

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 lb Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed and quartered

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
1/4 C unsalted butter

3 T aged balsamic vinegar

Heat oil in a heavy large skillet over medium high until simmering, but not browned. Add artichokes and 1/4 cup water, seasoning with salt and pepper. Cover and cook until artichokes are tender, about 8-10 minutes. Then, uncover and cook more until water has evaporated and the artichokes begin to brown, about 8-10 minutes further and then remove from pan.

Add thyme, rosemary and butter to the pan and cook while stirring until the butter ultimately browns which takes about 4 minutes. Off the heat, add the balsamic vinegar, stirring and scraping. Spoon the browned butter over the artichokes and serve.

Pourboire: Sunchokes can be prepared mashed (peeled or not) with or without other vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, turnips, or celery root. They also can be served raw, openly sautéed, or boiled.

Of course you know, this means war.
~Bugs Bunny (a friendly rival of Daffy Duck)

Foie gras is salty, sweet, and unctuous, with luxuriant buttery notes. Decadent, almost prurient stuff.

Foie gras, simply translated as “fat liver” in French, are fattened livers of geese and ducks. This is done via a method called gavage, feeding the animals through a tube several times a day for a few weeks, which fattens their livers to about 10-12 times normal size. As renowned food chemist Harold McGee once described, “it’s a kind of living pâté, “the result of “constant overnourishment.”

Lamentably, foie gras is at the center of another tedious and unsavory political polemic. On the one hand are producers, restauranteurs and epicures; on the other are animal activists and legislators; in the middle are the birds and lawyers. Passions have run high, and at times have been rabid. Mon dieu!

California Senate Bill 1520, a statute originally enacted in 2004 but effective July 1, 2012, prohibits the “force feed(ing of) a bird for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size” along with the sale of products that are a result of this process. The foie gras law, as it is so affectionately referred to by some and vilified by others, calls for a $1,000 per diem fine for any violations.

Foie gras has gastronomic roots dating back to ancient Egypt and the Jewish diaspora. Outlawing this indulgently oleaginous fare, however, is not novel. Several years ago, a similar ban in Chicago was rescinded after chefs either ignored or evaded it and city inspectors were simply unenthusiastic about enforcement. The foie gras prohibition was first established in Norway and similar statutes were adopted by Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland, and Israel. The California ban is the only one of its kind in the states. Groups such as the Humane Society, the ASPCA and PETA have joined forces to oppose foie gras consumption, claiming that ducks are subjected to tortuous and inhumane treatment. A nationwide prohibition is sought. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has sued the USDA, calling foie gras a diseased product unfit for human consumption. Hearings are pending.

Ironically, foie gras production in the United States is miniscule compared to other animal husbandry. There are less than a handful of American foie gras farms, all raising ducks rather than geese, who sell not only these treasured livers but also breast and leg meat, sausages made with scraps, and down from the feathers. Just imagine the outrage, political fallout, and lobbying efforts from laws demanding humane treatment for other beasts such as cattle, sheep, pigs or chickens in this land of carnivores.

The foie gras quarrel has now shifted to the courtroom. C’est la guerre. A lawsuit has been filed by the aggrieved plaintiffs in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeking, among other things, temporary and permanent injunctive relief. The complaint maintains that the California foie gras law is unconstitutionally vague and treads on Congress’ exclusive right to regulate interstate commerce. The suit also contends that the law unfairly places the burden of knowing a product’s origin on the distributor, restaurant or salesperson. So far, District Court Judge Stephen Wilson has denied a request by restauranteurs and producers for a preliminary injunction until matters are resolved in court.  Judge Wilson also rejected a motion to intervene by the ALDF in this litigation which likewise foreclosed the participation of Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and the Marin Humane Society, citing judicial economy concerns.

Not so much a postscript…it should be noted that Dr. Jaime Ruiz, director of Cornell University’s Duck Research Laboratory (who does not support or oppose foie gras production) stressed that “the farmers that I know here in New York and France handle the birds carefully, not feeding them above the physiological limits of the birds.” He also noted that force-feeding, done correctly, does not cause pain nor is an enlarged liver a diseased one. His opinions are shared by many.  An avowed omnivore and francophile, but ever scornful of proven animal abuses, you may have some inkling where I stand.

Rancor aside, think about melding foie gras with fine butter and slathering some on a toasted slice of artisanal bread, over the top of a freshly grilled steak or lamb chop or slipped in to impart sublime flavor to a simple sauce.

FOIE GRAS BUTTER

1/2 lb foie gras, at room temperature

1/2 medium shallot, peeled and finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil and unsalted butter

8 T (1 stick) high quality unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 T Madeira
2+ t quatre épices (see below)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium glass bowl, mash the room temp foie gras with a fork removing any veins, bits or stringy tissue. Place in plastic wrap, and shape, roll into a tight log about 6-7″ in length, securing the ends. Refrigerate until firm.

In the meantime, in a heavy, smaller sauté pan heat a dollop of olive oil and butter and cook shallots until just translucent, about 2 minutes.  Drain on paper towels, place in a small glass bowl, and set aside.

Bring a medium, heavy saucepan of water to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer. Meanwhile, prepare an ice water bath. Poach the wrapped foie gras until soft and the fat just begins to melt, about 1-2 minutes. Retrieve and briefly place in ice water bath to cool.

Dry foie gras log, remove plastic wrap and place foie gras in the bowl of a food processor. Add softened butter, Madeira, shallot, quatre épices, salt and pepper. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process in pulses until smooth and silky, scraping down sides as necessary, about a minute or so. Scrape the mixture onto a new sheet of plastic wrap and form into a 6-7″ log. Wrap tightly, secure the ends and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.

To serve, remove the foie gras butter from the refrigerator and slice into even disks. Wrapped well, the butter can be refrigerated for up to one week, or frozen for several months.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Use as needed, then store remainder in a tight, glass container in the cupboard.

Pourboire: consider adding some chopped figs or prunes to the log before rolling.

Grits — Apple & Mushroom

October 5, 2012

We are born believing. A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Meatless Mondays campaign, jointly launched by the Johns Hopkins and Columbia University schools of public health in 2003, has gained traction over the last decade or so. To those who wonder, this simply means to go meatless on Mondays. Awareness of the program has escalated, influencing decisions to reduce meat intake. The campaign has now begun to focus on national institutions like food service providers, manufacturers, chains, supermarkets and schools. Eating with moderation in mind holds real promise.

Tell that to the USDA and the beef association. The Department of Agriculture had published an interoffice newsletter calling for participation in Meatless Mondays by merely choosing among the many meat-free dishes offered in the office’s cafeteria. The newsletter commented that meat production plays a role in climate change, waste water, and demands on fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels. It also pointed to the many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat. All true.

This prompted an immediate, sermonizing rebuttal from the beef trade association. J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, who wrote in lobby lingo, “(t)his is truly an awakening statement by USDA, which strongly indicates that USDA does not understand the efforts being made in rural America to produce food and fiber for a growing global population in a very sustainable way. USDA was created to provide a platform to promote and sustain rural America in order to feed the world. This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet.” What a core statement. Politicians from beef states jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that they would eat even more red on Mondays, dubbin’ dem “double rib-eye Mondays.” Where is John Wayne when you need him?

In response, the USDA promptly backed down, withdrawing the newsletter and issuing a retraction via Twitter: “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. Statement found on USDA website was posted w/o proper clearance. It has been removed//” Sad and disappointing. Nothing like tweeting a “Dear John” to yourself. As always, caught in the middle of this childish spat are we consumers.

Michael Klag, a dean of Johns Hopkins, expressed his dismay with the hasty USDA recantation with a cc letter to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. The letter reminded the department, Congress and the administration of the responsibility to represent all segments of agriculture and fulfill the mission of promoting healthy diets.

There should be fewer bones to pick. Remember that far from being a vegan, vegatarian, polo-pescatarian or otherwise, I am by nature an omnivore who savors species from both plant and animal kingdoms. However, temperance should be exercised at the table, and if that involves some rational red meat forbearance then please so be it. Meatless Mondays, without so much political quibble, are a good start at home.

APPLE & MUSHROOM GRITS

4 bacon slices, cut into lardons
1 small to medium red onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 dozen+ mushrooms, such as shiitake, chanterelle and oysters, cut evenly

1 C quick-cooking grits
2 C whole milk
Pinch of sea salt
1 C chicken or vegetable stock
1 C water
1 rosemary sprigs
2 thyme sprigs

1/2 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
2 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 T parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1 pinch freshly ground pepper

1 Granny Smith apple, cored and julienned

In a large, heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the bacon, onion, and garlic, and then sauté until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and cook another 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for later.

Combine grits, milk, sea salt, stock/water, rosemary and thyme in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat, cover and let stand for another 10 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary and thyme sprigs.

Whisk the cream, mushroom mélange, butter, parmigiano-reggiano, and black pepper into the grits.

To serve, spoon grits into shallow soup bowls or to the side or partially underneath an entrée. Top with julienned apple.