Busy As Hens?

November 30, 2013

Idle dreaming is often the essence of what we do.
~ Thomas Pynchon

Those pretentious responses that are so often wearily repeated: “I’m just busy” “so busy” “too busy” “extremely busy” “uncontrollably busy” “busy beyond belief” “oh god, so damned busy” and so on. Angst ridden laments framed with sad eyes, shrugged shoulders, and false grins. It is as if these comments are intended to engender sympathy. Such plaintive voices, notably heard in dysturbia — pauvre de moi.

These insipid lines are little more than boasts disguised as afflictions merely meant to create significance to lives while facing the dread of otherwise mundane existences. This existential busyness is merely chosen and commonly self-induced. Extracurricular obligations and activities are voluntarily assumed by selves and others apparently due to unfounded ambitions and/or anxieties.

These are usually not the Henry David Thoreau types who “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

(Please understand — you do know that I am not speaking of those holding down several jobs or working a servile skeleton shift somewhere or others facing the ravages of inequality or enduring desperate lives and bleak futures. No, those folks are truly busy yet are often heard not to complain.)

Do we really want allegedly “busy” lives like this? Doubtfully, but many collectively coerce one another into doing so these days. Otherwise, apparently life seems to have little meaning to some individuals or families. I never once heard those words “so busy” uttered by my parents or others in my youth. It must be a rather recent phenomenon.

To a busy, it goes that life can never become trivial when constantly meeting demands each hour of every day. Being “so busy” combined with a zeal to get things done naturally begets a sense of self-importance, and even confers a badge of being molested by being put upon daily. The famed author Robert Louis Stevenson once diagnosed obsessive busyness as “a symptom of deficient vitality,” a comment written at a time well before the advent of those products of conceit and intrusion — cell phones, computers, tablets, personal messages, texts, instant messages, tweets, and social media. So, please beware of the screen and evade time famine as best you can.

So, untether thyself and give thought to savoring some idle journeys and whimsy in your life. ‘Tis the season, you know, and our time here is brief.

ROASTED GUINEA HENS

2 – 2 1/2 lb guinea hens, rinsed and patted dry thoroughly

3 T unsalted butter
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T fresh thyme leaves
Thyme sprigs
2 plump, fresh garlic heads, cut transversely with skins intact

3 T port wine
1 C chicken broth
1 C crème fraîche

Preheat oven to 400 F

Using your hands, rub the butter all over the birds, inside and out. Season liberally with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with thyme leaves. Insert a few thyme sprigs in the bird’s cavity. Place the guinea hens in a heavy roasting pan, breast side up. Scatter the garlic heads around the pan.

Place in the oven and roast 15 minutes. Baste about every 10 minutes with pan drippings, until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 160 F or until the hen juices run clear when a thigh is pierced, about 40 minutes or so.

Remove the hen from the oven and transfer to a cutting board to rest, tented, breast side down on one end with the other end inverted with a shallow bowl. Remove the thyme sprigs and discard. Drain excess fat from the pan and place over medium high heat, then add the port wine to deglaze. Add the chicken broth and using a wooden spoon, scrape up the pan drippings and bring to a boil. Reduce until the sauce is syrupy. Add salt and pepper again to taste. During the process, you may wish to add a dollop of port to fortify the process (along with the juices from the cutting board). Finish with crème fraîche until reduced to your liking.

Carve the hens and serve on a platter or on individual plates with the open, roasted garlics. Then, pass the sauce in a boat to douce over the servings.

No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy. It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.
~Denis Diderot, Encyclopedia (1751-1765)

So the tale goes…the potato, solanum tuberosum, a starchy, herbaceous, tuberous crop from the perennial nightshade family indigenous to the Andes was brought from the New World to Europe by curious Spanish mariners around the second half of the 16th century. The origins of the potato can be traced to the highlands of the Andes mountains on the border between Bolivia and Peru around 8,000 BCE. The beginnings were far from humble as the Andes are the lengthiest mountain range on earth running some 5,500 miles with peaks exceeding 22,000 feet — an often harsh territory where temperatures fluctuate wildly, and which proves seismically intense, rift with geographic faults, earthquakes, mudslides, and often active volcanoes.

Somehow, the potato made it to French shores and burrowed inland, introduced to the Franche-Comté, the Vosges of Lorraine and Alsace. At first, the French were so suspicious that in 1748 the government issued an edict forbidding their growth, as it was foolishly rumored that potatoes caused leprosy in humans. Later, the tuber was allowed to be used only as animal fodder.

Enter Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), a trained French pharmacist and veteran of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) having been captured by the Prussians no less than five times. To most in North America this conflict is known only as the French and Indian War, but the strife was quite global in scope affecting Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain and their respective overseas colonial territories on the other. In the end, Britain established as a distinct colonial power, with control over India and North America seemingly secured, while Prussia emerged as predominant force in Europe, and the preponderant voice within Germany. While imprisoned, Parmentier quietly subsisted on potatoes which led to his devotion to the spud as a staple for his homeland.

It should be remembered that regional and national French famines had become routine in the preceding centuries. The country simply could not feed itself. So, soon after he emerged from Prussian prison, Parmentier exalted the potato, laboriously aspiring to scrub the tot’s bad pub. He wanted potatoes to become an integral part of the French food supply, a staple. He went on a barnstorming tour of sorts hosting dinners at which potato dishes were featured prominently and guests included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  In Examen chymique des pommes de terres (1774), Parmentier touted the potato’s prodigious nutritional prowess.  About this time, some say that Marie Antoinette even adorned her hair with potato blossoms while her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole as part of an attempt to persuade French farmers to plant and French diners to consume S.tuberosum. Other members of royalty and aristocratic wannabes followed suit, strutting about in tuberous bouquets. Finally, the Paris Faculty of Medicine declared that potatoes were edible.

This opened the French culinary sluices with such classics as pommes Anna, gratin dauphinois, pommes de terre sarladaises, pommes aligot(e), pommes de terre boulangère, pommes purée, etc. A recipe for pommes duchesse even appeared in a cookbook, La Nouvelle Cuisinière Bourgeoise in 1817.

(M. Parmentier was entombed in the renowned Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, and both a Parisian avenue in the 10th and 11th arrondissements and a station on the Paris Métro bear his name.)

Pommes Duchesse are simply an exalted spud rendition. They are dollops of mashed potatoes with butter, eggs, cream and nutmeg that are shaped in a way that resembles meringues. The textural variances are sublime. Once baked, the interiors of the potatoes remain soft and creamy, while the edges of the contoured tops become crispy.

POMMES DUCHESSE

2 1/2 lb russet potatoes

4 T unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks, plus 1 egg mixed with 1 t heavy cream, lightly beaten
1/2 t freshly grated nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 eggs, whisked

Preheat oven to 400 F

Using a fork, prick potatoes all over and place on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 1-1 1/2 hours, allow to cool, then peel and pass through a food mill or ricer.

Mix potatoes, butter, yolks, egg, cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper in a glass or metal bowl and transfer to a piping bag fitted with a 3/4″ star tip. On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and working in a tight circular motion, pipe twelve 2 1/2″ in diameter rosettes — first fill the pastry bag in one corner with the riced potato mixture to squeeze out any air bubbles, while exerting steady pressure from the top with one hand while guiding the flow of the mixture with the other make a solid foundation, then carefully pipe a tight spiral, build a cone shaped mound and finish with a slightly pointed tip until each potato is about 2″ in height.

Brush with egg and then bake until golden brown, about 40–45 minutes.

I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully.
~George W. Bush

About time to return to the laptop.

Too often undervalued, even maligned and disparaged in American kitchens, anchovies are another super food, brimming with protein, calcium, vitamins E and D, and a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. For shame to the naysayers, as given their ambrosial and versatile traits (from oh, so subtle to slightly audacious) as well as their nutritional potency, anchovies should approach an obsession. Think Caesar salad, puttanesca, tapenades, piedmont eggs, nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce), salade niçoise, to name just a few.

Omega-3 fatty acids refer to a group of three polyunsturated fatty acids termed α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is rooted in walnuts and some vegetable oils, such as soybean, grapeseed, canola, and flaxseed, as well as in some green vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish. They are essential nutrients for human health, and research has suggested that omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, control blood clotting, help build neural cell membranes, combat depression, and reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

From the fish family Engraulidae, small and delectable anchovies are commoners who reside in salt water — oily skinned, foraging creatures with some 144 species scattered throughout the world’s temperate oceans and seas.

They are greenish fish with blue reflections due to a silver longitudinal stripe that runs from the base of the caudal fin, ranging from a tad less than 1″ to about 16″ in adult length. The body shapes vary with more slender fish found in northern climes. The snout is blunt with tiny, sharp teeth in both jaws and contains a unique, bioelectric rostral organ, believed to be sensory in nature, but whose precise function is unknown. This organ does however allow the anchovy to flourish in murky, troubled waters. The mouth is larger than that of herrings and silversides, though anchovies closely resemble them in other respects. Anchovies dine on plankton and recently hatched fish, known as fry.

When shopping, choose anchovies packed in glass where their now reddish-brown bodies are visible, rather than those packed in tins. They should also be packed in olive oil rather than lesser quality cottonseed or soy oil but should be patted dry before use.

The salt packed versions are whole little fish preserved in layers of sea salt which need to be boned before using — a simple finger pull on the skeleton. Then, they should be soaked in water, whole milk or buttermilk for 10 minutes or so to remove some of the salt and afterwards patted dry. They take an extra step or so, but most chefs and avid home cooks prefer sardines of this ilk.

In either event, these deified dainties are a far cry from the low quality, off flavored, unbalanced, pungent anchovies that reek on carry out pizzas in the states.

ANCHOVIES ON TOAST

Thick slices of artisanal bread, such as ciabatta, toasted and cooled
Unsalted butter, room temperature
Anchovy filets (superior quality), prepared as above

Toast sliced bread and allow to cool, so the butter does not melt. Rather thickly slather the room temperature unsalted butter on one side of each slice of toast. Arrange anchovy fillets in a diagonal on the toast with amounts to your tasting. Then, savor.

CHILE AIOLI

2 t chile powder
2 pinches of cayenne pepper
1 C mayonnaise, homemade (see below)
2 anchovy filets
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Combine the spices, mayonnaise, anchovy and garlic in the bowl of a blender or a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Blend in bursts on high speed until smooth.

Mayonnaise

4 large organic egg yolks, room temperature
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
1 t sea salt
Tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

1 1/3 C canola or grapeseed oil

Separate egg whites from yolks. Egg yolks contain a natural emulsifier, lecithin, which helps thicken sauces and bind ingredients.

With a balloon whisk, whip together the egg yolks, mustard, wine vinegar or lemon juice, salt, cayenne pepper in a medium glass or metal bowl. Do not use a plastic vessel.

Add a few drops of oil while whisking; then pour in the oil slowly, in a very thin stream, while whisking vigorously with the bowl tilted at an angle on a folded towel. The emulsion should become thick enough to hold its shape and appear voluptuously creamy. Be patient because if you add the oil too rapidly the mayonnaise will break and turn soupy.