One can resist the invasion of an army but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.
~Victor Hugo

Disorientation can occur in even the most precise of places. Just a few years ago, the Swiss army mistakenly invaded Lichenstein—a principality which has been without an army for well over a century. Not only has Switzerland been famously neutral for some 500 years, a sizeable minority once suggested in a national plebiscite that the country no longer even needed a military. While the invaders were armed with assault rifles, they had no ammunition. Once the misdirected recruits realized their error, they sheepishly tiptoed back to the homeland before anybody noticed. The next day, a formal apology was issued.

Just my kind of military incursion…delightfully comical, no shots exchanged, with all diplomatically forgiven and forgotten.

That lissom, leafy green known as Swiss chard really is not an authentic Swiss piece. Actually, the first varieties have been traced to the Mediterranean basin, likely Sicily. Some posit that seed cataloguers tried to distinguish chard from varieties of French spinach by using the neighborly word “Swiss.” Others claim that chard got its common name from another local green, cardoon, a celery-like plant with thick stalks. French cooks began calling them both carde, and confusion reigned which may have lead to the Swiss modifier.

The roasted, ground fennel seeds are a must.

RISOTTO & SWISS CHARD (RISOTTO e BIETOLE)

7-8 C chicken or vegetable stock

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C yellow onion, chopped

1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 C dry white wine

1 lb swiss chard, washed well, stemmed, cut into strips
2 t fennel seeds, roasted then ground
4 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 C parmigiano reggiano, grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium heavy sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, almost simmering.

Heat the oil in a heavy pot, add the onions, and sauté over moderately high heat until the onion softens and becomes translucent. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes.

Then, begin the process. Add a ladleful of hot stock, and cook, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more. The rice will become tender and creamy but still al dente after about 18 minutes.

Add the wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the chard, fennel, butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. The chard should be wilted and the rice tender and firm. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

What makes the English people sprightly is the liberal use of saffron in their broths and sweet-meats.
~Sir Francis Bacon

The plants and flowers of ancient Greece culture abound in mythology, and magical saffron is no different. According to one tragic tale, the handsome mortal Crocos fell deeply in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. Although his overtures were at first flattering, she later became bored and rebuffed his continued advances, transforming him into a passionately tinted crocus flower. Another tradition relates that he was metamorphosed by his friend Hermes, who had accidentally killed him in a game of discus. The three drops of Crocus’ blood that spilled on the ground transformed into a small flower with brilliant red stamens.

Saffron comes from the three delicate and thready stigmas of the saffron crocus. It takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand cultivated stigmas to create a single pound of this cherished brilliant orange-red colored and pungent bitter-honey flavored spice which helps explain why it fetches astronomical prices.

This elegant dish, Risotto alla Milanese, seduces with its delicate, creamy flavors and may be served as a first course, a side or a main dish.

SAFFRON RISOTTO (RISOTTO ALLA MILANESE)

6-7 C chicken stock
Pinch of saffron threads (about 1/2 t)

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and minced
1/2 C dry white wine
1 1/2 C Arborio rice

Sea salt to taste
3 T unsalted butter
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, grated

Parmigiano reggiano, grated, for serving

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the stock and keep it at a bare simmer while you prepare the risotto. Add the saffron to the stock, stir and infuse.

In a large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Add the onion until softened, but not browned, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the rice, and stir until coated well and it begins to turn shiny and translucent, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the wine and then ladle in 1 cup simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding the next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 16 to 18 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy yet still retaining a slight al dente texture.

Remove from heat and add the butter, parmigiano reggiano and a pinch of salt, stirring well. Divide the risotto among shallow soup bowls, grate some parmigiano reggiano over the top and serve.

The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
~Albert Camus

Yesterday, the Tour field opened up (perhaps hemorrhaged), with many of the men being separated from the boys on a steep finishing climb in Switzerland. Today is a no-rest-for-the-weary day which does not always translate into better performances tomorrow as riders can fall out of psychic and physical sync.

The next stage (numéro 16) mercilessly traverses 160km up and down the majestic Alps of Switzerland, Italy and France. After a precious few flat miles, riders will crawl up the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard (HC), the pinnacle of this year’s Alpine summits (8,114 feet). The final 5km is tortuous and never ending, with an average 6.2% grade, and some pitches as steep as 10%. Pains my quads to even tap, tap about it. After cresting the peak, the riders will descend into Italy at breakneck speed heading toward the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (Cat 1—a smidgen less steep) for another punishing ascent. Really? Again?

A symmetrical, buxom, double breasted race profile—the myth of Sisyphus times two, except unlike the tale, there is a finish to the stage.

The brief run through Northern Italy in tomorrow’s stage warrants a risotto recipe…a dirty, rustic one to be savored with the lights on.

RISOTTO SPORCO

8 C chicken broth

1/4 lb pancetta, chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
1 C porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 t dried thyme

1/3 lb chicken gizzards, chopped
1/2 lb chicken livers, patted dry and chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 C yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
1/2 C poblano chili pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 C Arborio rice
3/4 C red wine
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
1 T Italian parsley leaves, chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a simmer. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

In a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until rendered, about 4-5 minutes. Pour out some, but not all, of the pancetta fat. Set aside and drain on paper towels.

Heat some more olive oil and butter in the same large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt and thyme, and sauté until just browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2 to 4 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

Meanwhile, melt more butter and olive oil in the same large skillet over medium high heat. Season livers and gizzards with salt and pepper. Add gizzards then livers a little later to skillet and sauté until not quite cooked and still pink in the center, about 2 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

In a large heavy sauce pan or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat, add the onion and poblanos, and sauté until tender, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the rice and stir to coat. Add the wine and simmer until the wine has almost completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Ladle in 1 cup of the already simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 20 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from the heat and stir in the mushrooms, pancetta, livers, gizzards and most of the parmigiano reggiano. Transfer the risotto to shallow serving bowls. Garnish with the remaining parmigiano reggiano and parsley and serve immediately.

Paella

February 13, 2009

A morsel eaten selfishly does not gain a friend.
~Spanish proverb

Too long overlooked by a broader audience, Spanish gastronomy is at the forefront of the Western food cosmos. With its broad range of dishes, flavors and ingredients from the simple and rustic to the refined, artful and elegant, Spain is becoming the food destination. This “newly discovered” and somewhat overdue appreciation is likely due to the influx of tapas and paella restaurants as well as the famed chefs such as Ferran Adrià at El Bulli with his outside the box techniques. Like maestro Adrià, several of his countrymen also covet the prestigious three star designation awarded by the Michelin Guide.

Historically, paella was born from the fusion of Roman and Arab culinary heritages. Despite systematic, and often brutal, efforts by Christian clergy to systematically quash Moorish history and identity, much of the Iberian cuisine and culture has been heavily influenced by the Muslim conquest and a several century rule of Spain. Beginning in the 8th Century, the Moors developed a highly civilized land they called Al Andalus.

Outside some of the more obvious Moorish contributions—magnificent architecture, spendid landscaping and fountains, the introduction of paper, music, advanced academics, mathematics and sophisticated astronomy—the marked influence on cuisine is also indisputable. The Moors cultivated olives and oranges and also brought rice, cumin, saffron, almonds, peppers and other spices to Spain.

Now perhaps the most widely known dish in traditional Spanish cuisine, paella is often cooked over an open wood and vine fire in a broad round two handed paella pan. Paella pans of several sizes are available at cooking stores (one of my favored haunts), but it also can also be made in a large sauté pan. The dish is served right out of the pan at the table, family style, sharing the bounty with all.

Controlling the fire—the heat intensity—is paramount. The dish should not be disturbed during the process or you will cause the rice to cook unevenly. The idea is to cook the rice underneath to form the classic crust called soccorat on the bottom.

Several versions of paella exist often depending on region and available meat, game, fish and seasonal produce. The one constant, the leading lady, is the rice which should be the short grain variety, preferably Valencia, Bomba or Calasparra…even Arborio. Long grain rice simply is a “no no”.

PAELLA

4 chicken leg thighs, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons pimenton or sweet paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil

Spanish chorizo sausage, sliced

4 jumbo shrimp, peeled, but with heads and tails on
2 lobster tails, cut into medallions
Several squid, cleaned and rinsed
12 mussels, cleaned and scrubbed

4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium onion, diced
1 (16-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and hand crushed
1 t sea salt
1 t sugar

1 cup valencia or arborio rice
1 teaspoon saffron threads
2 bay leafs
1/4 C dry white wine
3 cups stock
1/2 cup sweet peas, frozen and thawed
Fresh cilantro

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat them dry. Mix the oregano and paprika with some salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture all over the pieces of chicken and marinate for 30 minutes or more.

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan or wide shallow skillet over medium high heat. Place the chicken in the pan, until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Add the chorizo and continue to cook until the oil is a vibrant red color. Temporarily remove the chicken and sausage to a platter.

Sear the lobster tails and shrimp for one minute over high heat. Add the squid to the pan and sear for 15-20 seconds. Set aside.

Make a sofrito—saute the garlic, onion, and tomatoes sprinkled with some salt, pepper and sugar; cook until the mixture caramelizes a bit and the flavors meld. Remove and set aside.

Return the chicken and sausage to the pan and lower the heat to medium. Pour in the white wine and cook until it is reduced by half, about 1-2 minutes. Add the sofrito and cook 3 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Crush the saffron and add to the pan along with the bay leaf. Season with salt.

Fold in the rice, carefully spreading it evenly around the pan. Cook for 5 minutes on high, stirring and gently moving the pan around so the rice cooks evenly and absorbs the liquid. The rice will float about in the pan.

Nestle in the reserved shrimp, lobster, and mussels. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a slow boil for 10 minutes. Near the last couple of minutes of this cooking process, scatter the squid and peas on top. During this entire stage, do not cover, disturb or stir or the rice will cook unevenly.

The stock should be absorbed by the now fluffy rice and there should be a nice shimmer to the top of the paella. Remember, the ideal paella has a toasted, caramelized rice “bottom crust” called socarrat. Allow to rest off the heat for 3-5 minutes, garnish with cilantro, then serve.

Pourboires: mix it up with other ingredients to change the character of the paella, including green beans, broad beans, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, mushrooms, serrano ham, chicken livers, rabbit, clams, snails

Risotto

January 27, 2009

Any healthy man can go without food for two days, but not without poetry.
~Charles Baudelaire

My dawn ablution of a poem and three cups of joe reminded me of risotto. The poem, entitled Rotary by Christina Pugh, ruminates about the slow-paced rotary phone which predated the touch tone and ubiquitous cell. Her verses reminded me of the ritualistic patience needed to make refined, satiny risotto…and in general how simple home cooking can diurnally stall the usual frenetic pace demanded by modern life. The nexus between a rotary phone and risotto my seem a stretch to some, but on this morning it seemed perfectly logical.

Risotto is rustic yet elegant fare whose rural roots have now spread their reach to a more chic audience. The object is to produce a smooth, velvety risotto whose texture plays upon the essence of each individual grain in a way in which they all coalesce to form a sumptuous symphony. An the type of rice and an assiduous hand produces the desired consistency.

A good risotto begins with premium Italian rice, usually Arborio or Violone, which are short, stubby and absorb liquid—resulting in a creamy product which retains a slight bite (al dente) to each grain. Two starches are found in rice: amylose (which does not gelatinize when heated) and amylopectin (which does break down when heated). Rice with a lower percentage (ergo more amylopectin) is shorter and starchier. For instance, Arborio rice contains roughly 19-21% amylose. The desirable gentle chew in risotto is actually due to a defect in the Arborio called chalk. During maturation, the starch structures at the grain’s core deform, making for that firm, toothy center when cooked.

The rice should stirred gently and somewhat constantly, with hot stock added a cup at a time, until it has reached a point of softness yet with the grains retaining their shape. The rice should be creamy, with a slightly resistant core and should not stick together or to the bottom of the pan. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes of your focused attention. Risotto is not a dish you prepare haphazardly while performing other tasks around the house, but please do not be fearful or assume it needs expert coaxing…just some gentle pampering.

Some diehard aficianados suggest there is an added ritual of properly eating risotto. While such over wrought etiquette often falls on deaf ears here, here is a primer on the process: (1) the cooked risotto should be served mounded in the center of shallow bowls; (2) as you eat, push the risotto push the grains out slightly toward the edge of the bowl, eating from the now shrinking ring of rice; (3) Continue spreading from the center and eating around the edges in a circle, so that the mound in middle will keep the risotto warm as you savor the risotto around the rim. The more extreme sects of risotto eaters even insist upon using spoons rather than forks.

RISOTTO WITH WILD MUSHROOMS

7 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 lb fresh wild mushrooms such as porcini or chanterelles, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
1-2 T fresh tarragon, minced
2 plump fresh peeled garlic cloves, smashed
1/3 cup minced shallots (about 1 or 2)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
¾ C freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the stock in a large saucepan and keep at a gentle simmer as you prepare the risotto.

Heat the oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt, and sauté until browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2-4 minutes. Sprinkle the mushrooms with minced tarragon, drain them and set them aside. Wipe out the skillet with paper towels.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter and add the garlic for perfume, pressing the garlic down and around the pan with a spatula to spread the aromatic wealth. Remove and discard the garlic. Add shallots and cook over low to moderate heat, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the rice, and stir until it is well coated and semi translucent, about 1-2 minutes. The heat and butter will separate the grains of rice, assuring a creamy consistency in the end.

Ladle in 1 cup simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 16 to 18 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from heat and stir in parmigiano-reggiano, a scant tablespoon of butter, sautéed mushrooms, a drizzle of truffle oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately with a Barolo from Piedmont or pinot noir.

Yield: 4 servings

Pourboire: For a more full bodied version, add already coarsely chopped and sauteed pancetta to the risotto at the end.