There is always something left to love.
~Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Perhaps the latest entry here should have included words such as el amor or amorda instead of los amigos. Hopefully, no utterances there hastened his demise although he “did not care about glory, or money, or old age, because (he) was sure (he) was going to die very young, and in the street.” Thank you for fooling us, our magus of magical realism — Gabriel García Márquez — who died yesterday at a ripe age, exalted and monied enough, at his Mexico City home.

Márquez’s work is flat mesmerizing, conjuring up images of his inventive vision, mythologizing the human condition, meandering into so many dreamscapes, and interlacing epic tales of memory and love. There was a Proustian tone to his prose, but his style also stood on its own among such literary luminaries as Joyce, Faulkner, Kafka, Borges and the like. His stories voiced superb power yet were rife with delicious comedy, oozing humanity throughout.

A native of Colombia, born and raised in the remote Caribbean town of Aracataca, Márquez would draw on his experiences there to later pen the imaginary town of Macando in One Hundred Years of Solitude. In this classic novel, Macando becomes a place where the phenomenal and hideous mingle and where the borders between the real world and fantasy eloquently collide — a lost village where ghosts roam, exotic flowers fall from the sky, a galleon with dirty rags for sails lies listless in the jungle, a child is born with the tail of a pig. A transcendent tale which cast a spell upon this reader.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Márquez aptly, yet eeriely, remarked about unrequited love: “…they no longer felt like newlyweds, and even less like belated lovers. It was if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion; beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.” Time for another re-read. There are other spellbinding works, of course.

Márquez’s craft is adroitly honed, vibrant, evocative, deft, and humorous. See you later, el maestro, Gabo — you have spoken to us all.

Dr. Juvenal Urbino in Love in the Time of Cholera had an affinity for asparagus due to the aftereffect aromas (speaking of Proust), so it seemed à propos

ASPARAGUS WITH SAFFRON BEURRE BLANC

Saffron Beurre Blanc
2 C dry white wine
1 C champagne vinegar
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper
Pinch saffron

12 T (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Boil wine, champagne vinegar, salt, pepper, and saffron in small saucepan over medium heat until liquid is reduced to 4 tablespoons, about 15 minutes. Whisk in half the butter, piece by piece, until it forms a creamy paste. Set saucepan over low heat and continue vigorously whisking in a piece of butter at a time just as the previous piece is almost fully incorporated. The sauce should have the consistency of a lighter hollandaise. Remove from heat, season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm, so the sauce does not separate.

Asparagus
Cold water
Sea salt
1+ lb medium asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed off

In the meantime, bring a large pot with cold water to a boil. Add the sea salt and then asparagus and cook until crisp, about 4-5 minutes. Drain and divide the spears evenly among smaller plates or platters. Tent loosely with foil, then remove and drizzle with the saffron beurre blanc.

Serve promptly and then just wait until the next morning. Dr. Urbino would be pleased.

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‘Tis hatched and shall be so.
~William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Likely due to post-Easter lags in sales, May has become Egg Month and delectable asparagus usually abounds then, so be accoutered with a huevos revueltos recipe. Revueltos are moist and creamy scrambled eggs mingled with such friends as sautéed mushrooms, artichokes, spinach, squash, potatoes, jamón, serrano, chorizo, squid, anchovies, sea urchin, lobster, shrimp, et al.

Unlike the usual scrambled eggs, they are sautéed with olive oil (not butter); their flavorful friends are added before the eggs (not afterward); and finally, the eggs are not whisked with a dollop of cream beforehand and often enter the pan just with the yolks broken.

Savor this Spanish gem, more often at lunch or a late dinner.

HUEVOS REVUELTOS

3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 C artisanal bread, cut into 1/2″ cubes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 ozs diced or julienned jamón or serrano ham
1 or 1 1/2 lbs thin asparagus, cut on the bias in 2″ lengths
1 bunch green Spring onions, chopped
1 t garlic, peeled and minced

8 large local farm eggs, lightly whisked (or simply with yolks broken)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of pimentón

2 T Italian parsley leaves and/or other herb of choice, roughly chopped

Put olive oil in a heavy, large skillet over medium high heat until shimmering but not smoky. Add peeled garlic cloves and allow to sizzle and turn until just lightly browned on all sides, then remove and discard. Add bread, season with salt and pepper, lower heat to medium and gently fry until lightly browned and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove bread and set aside to cool.

Add jamón or serrano and cook lightly. Add asparagus, season with salt and pepper, and cook greens through until firm, about 3-4 minutes. Add green onions and minced garlic and cook 1 minute more.

Crack eggs into glass bowl and season with salt, pepper and pimentón and lightly whisk or break yolks only. Pour into pan onto remaining ingredients and cook, slowly stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula, just until soft and creamy, about 3-4 minutes. Add parsley and/or herb(s), top with fried bread, and serve promptly.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

~William Shakespeare

The sometimes dubious origin of a month’s name. April is the season of spring in the Northern hemisphere and autumn in the Southern hemisphere.

The Roman calendar changed several times between the founding and the fall of the Roman Empire. Prior to the addition of January and February by Numa Pompilius around 700 BCE, April was the second month of the Roman calendar year with March being the first. The city grew briskly, swelled by landless refugees. So, as most were male and unmarried, the then king Romulus (a character of Rome’s founding myth, and one of the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars who were cast into the river Tiber) arranged to abduct neighboring Sabine women. Of Sabine blood, his successor Numa, who was a wise even cunning leader but lived an austere life, was the legendary second king of Rome.

Numa Pompilius.jpg

Romans considered odd numbers to be lucky, so Numa plucked one day from each of the six months with 30 days, reducing the number of days in the previously defined months. Then, around 450 BCE, the month of April slipped into the fourth slot and was assigned a mere 29 days. With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by a similarly named pope in 1582, another day was added et voilà “30 days hath April,” as does September, June and November.

Though April’s derivation is not certain, a common theory is that the name is rooted in the Latin Aprilis which is derived from the Latin aperire meaning “to open” — perhaps referring to blossoming petals and buds. This coincides not only seasonally but etymologically with the modern Greek use of ἁνοιξις (opening) for the word spring. Others posit that since months are often named for gods and goddesses and Aphrilis is derived from the Greek Aphrodite, one could surmise that the month was named for the Greek goddess of love.

The month of April begins on the same day of the week as July each year, and January in leap years; while it ends on the same day of the week as December every year.

Around the 5th century CE, the Anglo-Saxons referred to the month of April as Oster-monath or Eostre-monath, a reference to the goddess Eostre, whose feast occurred during this month. Saint Bede (a/k/a The Venerable Bede), a learned monk from the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter, believed this gave root to the word Easter which is often observed then.

Bunches of jaunty green asparagus are harbingers in farmers’ markets signalling that winter has finally given way to spring.

ASPARAGI ALLA MILANESE (ASPARAGUS MILANESE)

Cold water
Sea salt
Medium asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed off

Unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large, farm fresh eggs

Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
Lemon zest

Bring a large pot with cold water to a boil. Add the sea salt and then asparagus and cook until crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain and divide the spears evenly among smaller plates or platters. Tent loosely with foil.

Heat a heavy, large non-stick skillet over medium. Heat butter and a splash of olive oil until just lightly shimmering. But, please do not burn or brown the butter. While the fat melts, crack eggs into a glass cup or saucer then slide them into the shimmering oil. Cover with a clear domed lid and adjust the heat so that the white begins to set. Begin spooning the heated fats over the eggs until the runny whites turn opaque and the yolks begin to set ever so slightly, but remain rather runny. (The white no longer clear and the yolk still loose.) Remove to a plate by simply sliding them out of the pan or use a slotted spatula. Place the egg over the bottom half of the cooked asparagus spears, and then season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Grate parmigiano-reggiano over each serving, along with some lemon zest. Serve promptly. (It is nearly peerless when that orange yolk quietly oozes onto the eagerly awaiting grassy flavored spears.)

Art + Chemistry = Cheese

April 30, 2011

Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.
~Luis Buñuel

Combine milk, bacteria, rennet, mold…and you have one seductive and addictive vice.

So simple, yet almost magical and surely sublime is this holy craft of transubstantiating milk into cheese. Even though the fond remains fairly steady, cheeses can range from rustic to elegant in character with noses, palates, textures, hues, masses and shapes across the board. It is about art and chemistry.

There is no fixed date, but cheese is rumored to have originated when goats were first domesticated in the fertile crescent region of the ancient Middle East around 8,000 BCE, give or take a millenium or two. Perhaps some imaginative soul noticed that neglected (1) milk turned acidic and curdled into a thick yogurt which could then be readily separated into solid curd and liquid whey. While the whey provided a refreshing drink, the fresh curd could be salted to produce a crude cheese. Others have suggested that the process was accidentally discovered by nomads who stored milk in skins made from animals’ stomachs naturally lined with rennet, separating the milk into curd and whey.

A primer may be in order. The cheese artisan first acidifies milk to turn the liquid into a solid by use of a (2) bacteria. There are several hundred thousand strains of starter bacteria which devour sugars, converting lactose into a lactic acid. This creates a viscous yogurt-like mass.

Next, the syrupy mass is coagulated by adding rennet to the mix. Rennet comes from the stomach linings of young ruminants. The active enzyme in (3) rennet acts on casein proteins which occur in milk as clumps known as micelles, held together by a calcium “glue.” When the rennet is added, a web is formed which traps water and fat, further thickening the gel.

The curd is (4) heated in a giant cauldron and salt is often added not only for taste but also to inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes and draw out yet more water. The cheese is then (5) molded which proves critical. The shape of the mold, the application of pressure and the proportion of whey removed all affect the texture of the final product.

Finally, the cheeses are (6) aged/ripened, a stage where they are left to rest under controlled conditions and often in special venues, e.g., the caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon. This aging period lasts from a few days to several years. The casein proteins and milkfat are broken down and morph into a complex mix of amino acids, amines, and fatty acids. As a cheese ages, microbes and enzymes transform textures and intensify flavors.

Some cheeses even have additional bacteria or molds introduced before or during the aging process. Think brie, camembert, roquefort, stilton.

Other seemingly minor variations can have a dramatic effect on the finished cheese: animal species, breed and diet, terroir, amount and type of bacterial culture and molds, ripening time, aging locale, rennet volume, curd size, heating rate for milk, length of time stirred, how the whey is removed, and so on.

While cheeses are liberally used while cooking here, there is nothing more mold-ambrosial than an array of artisanal cheeses—from mild to wild—gracing the table with a choice wine and a baguette, ciabatta or other artisanal siren. Staff of life stuff. Khayyám’s standby “a loaf of bread, a flask of wine and thou” seems so often apt (loosely translated). A winsome foursome that brings cheeses on board is even better.

BREAD PUDDING WITH CHEESES & ASPARAGUS

1+ lb baguette loaf, cut or roughly torn into 1″ pieces

3/4 lb asparagus, trimmed and sliced into 1″ pieces

6 large, fresh eggs
1 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 C gruyère or comté cheese, grated
1 C emmental cheese, grated
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1/4 C fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 C fresh thyme leaves, minced

Preheat oven to 375 F

Butter a 13″ x 9″ glass baking dish

Heat a large saucepan with cold water over high, and when boiling, add salt. Cook asparagus until al dente tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and plunge in an ice bath to cease cooking. Drain well and dry, or the asparagus will become soggy.

Whisk eggs, milk, cream, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Mix cheeses and herbs in medium bowl.

Place half of bread in baking dish. Sprinkle with half of asparagus, cheese mixture and egg mixture. Repeat with remaining bread, asparagus, cheese and egg mixture. Let stand 30 minutes, pressing down to submerge bread pieces.

Bake until nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool 15 minutes or so.

Cold soup is a very tricky thing, and it is the rare hostess who can carry it off. More often than not, the dinner guest is left with the impression that had he only come a little earlier he could have gotten it while it was still hot.
~Fran Lebowitz

Oddly, I chose this cool, rainy, ruminative day to write about cold fare. But, our sultry and sometimes sweltering summer will soon swoop down, so now is the time to dust off and unveil some cold soups—and I do mean well chilled, not room temp.

The English cucumber makes a much superior choice of these green vegetal cylinders. After all, it handles the rigors of shipping well, appears in decent quantities and has such sweetly flavored flesh and skin that you can eat the entire vegetable. The flesh is smooth and refreshingly moist.

It is generally sold wrapped in plastic to reduce water loss, and so is usually not waxed as are other varieties. Contrary to popular belief, English cucumbers are not enitrely seedless, but the seeds are much smaller and less prominent. Cucumbers contain surprisingly high amounts of protein and vitamin B1 as well as an enzyme called erepsin, which aids in digesting protein.

Here is a trio of fresh and crisp chilled soups that soothe on those torrid days…

CHILLED ENGLISH CUCUMBER SOUP WITH DILL

1 1/2 T unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onions
4 English cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut crosswise into 1/2″ slices
1 russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 1/2 C chicken broth
4 large fresh dill fronds
6 tablespoons minced fresh dill
1 t salt

1 cup crème fraîche
Thin smoked salmon slices, about 3″ long

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until slightly softened and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add cucumbers and potato; stir 1 minute. Add broth, dill fronds, and salt. Increase heat and bring to simmer, then reduce heat to low; cover and simmer until cucumbers and potato are tender, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Remove and discard dill fronds.

Working in batches, purée soup in processor until smooth. Return to pot and cool 30 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 4 tablespoons minced dill. Cover and chill until cold, about 4 hours. Taste soup, adding more salt if desired.

Ladle soup into shallow bowls. Spoon a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of each bowl, and artfully arrange smoked salmon slices over the dollop. Lightly sprinkle with the remaining minced dill.

CHILLED ASPARAGUS SOUP

8 T unsalted butter
3 lbs fresh asparagus, bases snapped off and spears sliced in 1″ lengths
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 small spring onions or cippolinis, white part only, peeled and finely chopped

2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt vegetable stock

1 C tarragon leaves, stems removed and discarded
1 1/2 C spinanch, blanched, ice bathed and drained on paper towels
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1-2 T Champagne vinegar

Crème fraîche
Caviar or salmon roe (optional)

Over medium heat, add butter to 1 large, heavy saucepan. Just when the butter has become foamy, add onion, spring onions and garlic. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Sweat mixture until soft and translucent, but not browned.

Add both stocks and potato to pan. Lightly season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until potatoes are tender. Once potatoes are tender, bring to a rolling boil and add the asparagus. Once the soup returns to a boil, reduce and simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to a large bowl and chill soup immediately in an ice bath.

In a food processor or blender, add tarragon and spinach to soup mixture and purée well in batches until smooth. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and champagne vinegar. Cover and chill until cold, about 4 hours.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish each with a dollop of crème fraîche and a teaspoon of caviar or roe.

Pourboire: in lieu of crème fraîche and fish eggs, you may consider crumbling some fine goat cheese over the soup. More rustic, but no less flavorful.

CHILLED AVOCADO SOUP

4 ripe medium avocados, halved, pitted, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 C buttermilk
1 C plain organic yogurt
3 T fresh lime juice
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and diced
2 T chopped seeded jalepeño chili
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 C chicken broth

White pepper
Sea salt

Sour cream
Lime zest
Red chili pepper, finely minced

Place avocados into processor and add buttermilk and yogurt; purée until smooth. Mix in lime juice, red oninon, jalepeño and cayenne pepper and purée further. With machine running, blend in 1/2 cup chicken broth. Season with salt and white pepper. Chill soup until cold, about 4 hours.

Ladel soup into shallow bowls. Serve each with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of lime zest and minced red chili pepper.

Chilled Asparagus

May 8, 2009

…my greatest pleasure was the asparagus, bathed in ultramarine and pink and whose spears, delicately brushed in mauve and azure, fade imperceptibly to the base of the stalk—still soiled with the earth of their bed—through iridescences that are not of this world.
~Marcel Proust, Du Côté de Chez Swann, vol. I of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu

Is it overly evident that (eons ago) my favorite professor was a renowned Proust scholar? On reflection, he may have been partially responsible for my prolonged asparagus addiction. I have a passion for many foods, but a particular fondness for cold asparagus whether served with varied vinaigrettes or this juxtaposed citrus and garlic dressing.

CHILLED ASPARAGUS WITH CITRUS & GARLIC

2 lbs thick asparagus, bottoms snapped off
Water
Sea salt

Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 grapefruit
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3 T parsley, coarsely chopped
3 T mint, coarsely chopped
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt

Bring water to a boil in a large stock pot and add a liberal dose of salt. Put the asparagus into the boiling water and cook briefly until crisp, less than 2 minutes. Remove and immediately plunge into an ice and frigid water bath for a couple of minutes, stirring some. Make sure the ice bath is sufficiently cold as you want to halt the cooking process abruptly.

Remove and immediately drain asparagus on towels, then transfer to a large baking dish or large platter. Add the lemon zest and juice, orange zest, grapefruit zest and juice, garlic, parsley, mint, salt and olive oil and gently toss. Serve immediately or chill in the refrigerator, allowing all of the flavors to meld. However, do not allow to chill too long as the spears can become a bit soggy.

Roasted Asparagus with Feta

February 18, 2009

It seemed to me that these celestial hues revealed the delicious creatures who had merrily metamorphosed themselves into vegetables and who, through the disguise of their firm, edible flesh, disclosed in these early tints of dawn, in these beginnings of rainbows, in this extinction of blue evenings, the precious essence that I recognized again when, all night long following a dinner at which i had eaten them, they played, in farces as crude and poetic as a fairy play by Shakespeare, at changing my chamber pot into a jar of perfume.
~Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Given its variable nature and year round availability, asparagus is likely the most beloved green at our table. Whether steamed, boiled, sauteed, grilled or roasted, asparagus are finger food heaven and marry well with nuts, cheeses, vinaigrettes and some sauces. Do not dare deign to use a fork or knife with these darlings.

Asparagus officinalis is a perennial flowering plant species from the lily family. These delicate spears were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and a recipe even appears in one of the oldest surviving cookbook, Apicius’s De re coquinaria (3rd Century AD).

Asparagus shoots evolve into stalks several feet high, sometimes growing 6″ to 10″ in a single day. Some one half of the world’s asparagus is harvested white, which is accomplished by covering the spears from light, thus inhibiting chlorophyll production. This produces a more delicate and sweet version, but is also more fibrous—usually requiring peeling before cooking. A portion of each green or white asparagus spear’s bottom end is inedible, so simply bend the stalk until it naturally snaps.

Asparagus is seductively low in calories and sodium, and contains no fat or cholesterol…while remaining a hearty source of folic acid, potassium, dietary fiber, and rutin.

ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH FETA

2 lbs medium asparagus, bottoms snapped off
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 C good quality feta cheese

2 t fresh lemon zest

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Toss asparagus with oil, salt, and pepper in a large shallow baking pan and arrange in single layer. Roast, shaking pan once about halfway through roasting, until asparagus is just tender when pierced with a fork, 8-12 minutes—but, with 2 minutes to go, sprinkle asparagus with cheese. When done, top with lemon zest and serve.