BEC (Bacon + Egg + Cheese)

August 15, 2015

In my next life, I want to live backwards. Start out dead and finish with an orgasm.
~Woody Allen

Transcendent finger food.

Not too unlike a BLT, croque, panini or that alleged lowly grilled cheese sandwich, a BEC (Bacon-Egg-Cheese) sounds rather mundane. But, much like its more venerable predecessors, a BEC is often anything but banal. Not merely relegated to sometimes portable breakfast menus, but also a lunch and dinner (or even later) plate with a simple side. BECs can prove to be simply sublime — eye-rolling, shallow panting, deep breathing, heart bursting, rouge chested, thigh clenching, toe curling, oozy fingered, nasal dripping, raw pleasures, rhythmic passions, eager hormones, tablecloth grasping, intense looks, open moans, declared raptures, blissfully orgasmic, dances in your mouth — un petit mort grub. Where have you been all my life, oh gluttonous soul?

If not, just have your mate or lover(s) cook BECs for you. Often, sharing provender is more intimate and toothsome that way.

BEC (Bacon + Egg + Cheese)

Bacon
6 slices superior bacon

Bread
Artisanal bread, sliced, toasted on both sides and buttered on one side, or
English muffin, sliced, toasted on both sides and buttered on one side, or
Bagel, sliced, toasted on both sides and buttered on one side, or
Torta, opened, toasted on both sides and buttered on the inside or

Cheeses
Gruyere, Taleggio, Fontina, Manchego, Monterey Jack, Cheddar (White or Yellow), sliced thinly

Eggs
6 local medium or large eggs
Extra virgin olive oil (a small dollop)

In a large, heavy skillet over moderate heat, turn until crisp about 8 minutes. Transfer to drain on paper towels.

Meanwhile, heat a large, heavy non-stick skillet with EVOO and from a small saucer drop in 3 eggs on two occasions and right before the yolk begins to set, slide on the cheese slices and cover so the cheese melts. But, please do not overcook the egg yolk — it should gush at first bite.

Arrange with bacon on the bottom slice of toasted bread, then eggs and cheese over the bacon and finally top with bread.

Pourboire: just use your kitchen imagination and consider a variety of breads and cheeses as well as pancetta, guanciale, sausage, and eggs whether poached or scrambled with some fresh or dried herbs. Each permutation is a variation on the theme of BEC.

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Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
~Albert Einstein

Sometimes, culinary inspiration is gleaned from the bucket seat right next to you while musing and jawing about favored eats at beloved faraway lands. A sweetly absurd kind of waking moment, where creative osmosis just happens and a craving follows. Such was the case with fougasse this weekend while hurtling down a bleak stretch of the interstate. Thanks for that, and all else.

In ancient Rome, panis focacius was a flatbread baked in the ashes of a hearth (“focus” in Latin). The loaves later blossomed into a diverse range of breads spanning many borders that now include focaccia in Italy and fougasse in southern France (originally fogatza), as well as fouace or fouée in other régions. Almost a primitive form of pizza, fougasse is a luscious Provençal flatbread traditionally rolled into the form of a leaf or ear of wheat. Oddly, it is also the name for an antiquated, improvised land mine formed in a hollow filled with explosives and projectiles.

FOUGASSE AUX OLIVES ET HERBES

1 t yeast
1 t sugar
1 1/3 C warm, but not overly hot, water

4 1/2 C flour
1 t sea salt
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Cornmeal or flour, for dusting

Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing
3/4 C kalamata olives, pitted and minced
2 T fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 T rosemary leaves, minced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 500 F about 20 minutes before baking

Put the yeast and sugar in the bowl of a large stand up mixer which is fitted with a paddle. Stir in the warm water and allow to sit for about 10 minutes so the yeast blooms. There should be an opaque, bubbly surface on top of the water. Then, add the flour and salt, and right afterward the olive oil. Mix together, then knead for about 5 minutes on medium high, until a firm, dry dough develops.

Round the dough into a rough ball in the mixing bowl. Cover with a few damp paper towels and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Once the dough has risen, uncover and press with your hands so the air bubbles are released. The dough should be rather dry and should not stick much to your fingers. Transfer it to a floured work surface. Flatten it with your hands into a thick disk and with a sharp knife, divide the disk into 5 equal wedges. Roll out each dough wedge into an 8″ x 5″ isosceles triangle about 1/4″ thick. Place each triangle on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and lightly dusted with cornmeal or flour. Make three lengthwise slashes in each triangle, as well as one smaller slash below the middle slash. Gently pull the dough apart so it gapes. Cover dough with a damp towel and again allow to rest, this time for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop up the olives and herbs. Uncover each dough piece, lightly brush with olive oil and then sprinkle with toppings, taking care to distribute them evenly and to avoid the gaps. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Slide the baking sheet into the oven and bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Pourboire: with fougasse, there are numerous variations on a theme, so consider studding or gracing the loaves with with whatever suits your fancy — other herbs, lardons, gorgonzola, roquefort, walnuts, pine nutes, sundried tomatoes, pesto, tapenade, citrus zest, coarse sea salt, anchovies, etc.

Undoubtedly the desire for food has been and still is one of the main causes of political events.
~Bertrand Russell

Perhaps nothing arouses my appetite more than cheese, a passion that borders on the obsessive, even compulsive. Cheese stirs the nub of my food soul and plunges me into deep rooted, over the edge cravings. So, after so much luscious Asian fare recently, withdrawal symptoms are encroaching. A cheese binge is in my near future. Seems I’m now unapologetically and thankfully suffering a relapse. My yearnings demand that I seek out and indulge in those hedonic usual suspects like mac & cheese, pizza, gratin dauphinois, panini, bread gratin, frittatas, calzone, cheeseburgers and friends. Or those simple, divine pairings of bread and cheese. My lust is indiscriminate — blissfully indentured to cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milks, divergent origins, and differing textures.

These hankerings are just another example of how that enigmatic and insatiable gray matter controls impulse. Neural processes are directly linked to all things sybaritic, from whetting your appetite to quenching your thirst to sating sexual urges. When incited, the mind is motivated to search for those things we need, crave, and desire whether corporeal or intellectual.

The nucleus accumbens, a part of the primitve limbic system, plays a pivotal role in arousal, whether that high is derived from food, sex or drugs. If you ache for a certain food, if your urges are kindled, you are sparking the nucleus accumbens with a surge of electrochemical activity which courses throughout your nervous system. Then, you tend to act on that yen.

Each cerebral hemisphere is fitted with one nucleus accumbens, located in an area called the medial forebrain bundle (MFB) which is composed of a complex grouping of axons endlessly conducting nerve signals. Working in concert with other pleasure centers, this region plays a crucial role in the reward circuit, based chiefly on the release of essential neurotransmitters: dopamine, which promotes desire, and serotonin, whose effects include satiety and inhibition. Because it mediates punishment and reward, the area has been often studied for its role in addiction, as in cheeseaholism. Also coming into play are the amygdala (imparting agreeable or disagreeable colorations to perceptions), the hippocampus (the font of memory), and the insula (thought to play a role in active pleasure-seeking). A constantly firing cerebral amalgam of arousal.

The first recipe is tapas fare, and the second a basic which so depends on the bread and the cheese…so simple, yet ever so delectable.

FRITO QUESO (MANCHEGO)

1 C all purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 C fresh bread crumbs or panko
3/4 lb Manchego cheese, cut into 1 1/2″ to 2″ cubes

Canola oil

Sea salt
Honey or lavender honey
Pimentón agridulce (moderately spicy paprika)

Divide the flour, eggs, and bread crumbs into 3 separate dishes. Dip the cheese cubes into each ingredient to coat: flour –> eggs –> bread crumbs.

Meanwhile, in a large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, pour enough oil to fill the pan about a third of the way. Heat over medium heat until a deep-frying thermometer inserted in the oil reaches 375 F.

Add the breaded cheese to the hot oil, in batches, and deep fry until the cubes are golden and crisp on the outside, oozing on the inside.

Remove the cheese from the oil and drain on a rack or paper towel lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Transfer the cheese to a serving dish, drizzle with honey, and lightly dust with pimentón.

THE GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICH

Unsalted butter, softened
8 slices artisanal bread
10 ozs Taleggio cheese, rind removed, at room temperature, divided into equal portions

1-2+ T unsalted butter

Spread butter onto one side of each slice of bread. Top buttered side of half of the slices with cheese, then arrange remaining 4 slices of bread on top, buttered side down, to make sandwiches.

Melt remaining butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, then arrange two of the sandwiches in the skillet. Cook until golden brown on the first side, about 3 minutes, pressing down gently with a spatula. Flip sandwiches, adding another tablespoon of butter to skillet. Continue to cook until golden brown on the second side, about 3 minutes more. Repeat process with remaining butter and sandwiches. Serve warm.

Pourboire: While the basic grilled cheese is my fav, you can add proscuitto, sliced apples, olives, caramelized onions, cooked bacon, sautéed peppers, capers, braised radishes, arugula, eggs, avocadoes, sautéed mushrooms, etc., are all welcome between the sheets. Just keep the fixings to a minimum.

Bread Gratin

October 29, 2011

Acorns were good until bread was found.
~Francis Bacon

Monday was Food Day, a grassroots event sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest intended to enhance the food chain. Through education and even litigation, this nonprofit watchdog group has battled for accurate labeling, better nutrition, and safer eats for decades. This day underscored and celebrated food’s significance as an integral part of the human condition…for vitality, diversion and pleasure. It aimed to connect the dots between good food, health, supply and sustainability and suggested alternatives to the ever expanding fast food nation with such events as Eat Real, Eat In.

This year’s iteration actually returned after an extended hiatus. In 1975, the inaugural Food Day took place, although it only lasted only a couple of years due to a lack of funding. This time though, with an increased social awareness of locally grown, natural foods and nutritious diets, Food Day should become an annual reminder. Good grub that nourishes should be a staple.

Now I by no means suggest that you should have slaved at the stove, unshowered, unshaven, garbed in dreadlocks and hemp, preparing only purely organic vegan super fare. If so, fine. But, that kind of overwrought integrity may prove indigestible to some.

Food Day should be celebrated nearly everyday. Face it–our species must necessarily eat and drink almost daily. Why make the art of cooking and eating such unwholesome drudgery? Some one in four Americans dine on fast food daily while obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates continue to skyrocket. Fad diets have been roundly proven unsuccessful. Other societies that have emulated our diet have promptly fattened. I am no strict health food advocate, but creating a fine, hale meal whether savored alone, tête-à-tête or around a communal table has few rivals.

In honor of this day, here is some staff of life.

BREAD GRATIN

Unsalted butter, for dish

4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 slices artisanal bread, cut 1/2″ thick

2 C fontina and/or gruyère, freshly shredded

Parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Nutmeg, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 350 F

Butter a deep baking dish on bottom and sides.

In a large bowl, beat eggs and yolks, then whisk in milk, cream, salt, and pepper. Add bread slices and allow to soak, turning occasionally, about 4-5 minutes. Layer half of the slices in the buttered baking dish and evenly strew 1 cup of the fontina and/or gruyère on top. Pour any of the remaining milk, cream and egg mixture over this first layer. Layer with the remaining bread slices and then 1 cup of the fontina and/or gruyère again. Then sprinkle with the grated parmigiano-reggiano and top with a tad of nutmeg.

Slip into oven and bake until the egg mixture is set and the top is golden, about 30-35 minutes. Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving.

Pourboire: should you feel a touch sly, you can slip in some sautéed mushrooms, pancetta lardons or Swiss chard between layers before baking. Also, always remember that nutmeg can be overwhelming, so be judicious when grating.

Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.
~Mark Twain

Decision fatigue. That mental chisel which chips away at rational choice. The brain strain that afflicts both rich and poor, those slogging through work’s quagmire, agonizing at the mall or mired down at home. Different from what is typically perceived as physical fatigue, it takes an insidious toll on the brain. Researchers have noted that over time it depletes the mind’s energy, leading to erratic choices and dubious decisions. Faced with navigating a ceaseless influx of decisions upon decisions, many look for shortcuts and some begin to act impulsively while others resist change and do little. Even the mere act of resolving potential tradeoffs may prove cerebrally exhausting. Innovation and creativity often lag. Willpower wanes. Choosing threads, wheels, colors, fabrics, channels, deals, gadgets, abodes, mates and more…all can foster tired, vulnerable minds which is the paralytic price paid for our dizzying overabundance of options. Well, with the exception of partners which usually presents either arid or florid choices.

The human brain is a remarkably pliant organ, but it is not without limits. Much like a muscle, when it becomes depleted, the brain loses efficiency. But, unlike other body parts, the brain usually fails to appreciate when an onslaught of decisions renders it fatigued. As with depression and other mental disorders, the very organ that is supposed to protect against harm is the same organ which is disabled. The often unrecognized tired mind struggles to ascertain what to retain and what to disregard, often failing at both, and then rueful choices follow.

Decision fatigue even plagues home cooks pondering a simple meal. Such an array of options. What sounds most appealing? What to buy or what is even available at the markets? Should the meal be lavish or frugal? Are there compromises to consider? What app(s), entrée and sides should be served? What types of prep are most apt given the basic menu and timing issues? Whose palate must be placated? How should the meal be plated? Should any of the meal be served in courses or at once? What should be served to drink? Which wines pair better? Shall there be dessert, and if so, what? How should the table be set and the meal presented? What otherwise seems a banal task of serving food can be rife with uncertainty and tiresome indecision. Perhaps this is why many have a short list of favored meals.

Acute and chronic stress levels are reaching blight proportions. Not only does prolonged stress raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, increase the risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, it makes you one unpalatable mate. Researchers have even learned that chronic stressors can rewire the brain in ways that promote its presence. These sinister changes in the neural circuitry affect the regions of the brain associated with decisions and behavior. You tend to fall back on rote routine and eventually settle into bad habits. Executive decision-making skills are hampered.

Fortunately, stress induced changes to the brain are reversible, and pharmaceuticals are often not the answer. Solace can be found in the kitchen. Once embraced, cooking offers a change of pace and venue, soothing the angst and perturbations of the daily rut. Jangled nerves can be soothed. On a most basic level, it provides a creative outlet where raw, solitary ingredients are transformed into an amalgamation of scents, flavors, textures and hues. While stress numbs the senses, cooking activivates them. The cooking process has an almost measured field of action, a mission with a defined goal, and a finish with sensuous contentment.

Below is an embarassingly easy salad, soup, and sandwich trio to add to your decision tree. Relax, unwind, create and then savor. To narrow the matrices for the indecisive, the core ingredients remain fairly constant—fennel and fungi fervor with bright, fragrant tones of anise, sometimes citrus, and an underlying earthiness.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SALAD WTH CITRUS-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 C fine champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 C extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Parmigiano reggiano, thinly sliced into curls

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, orange zest, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream until it emulsifies. Set aside.

Cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb so as to remove the fingers. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a knife.

Slice the bulb very thinly into rings. Add mushroom slices and gently toss with a light coating of the champagne-orange vinaigrette. Sparsely finish with a few parmigiano reggiano curls.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SOUP

4 T unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and chopped
1 t fennel seeds, toasted and ground
8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed

4 C mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/2 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter until hot and foaming, but not browning. Add the fennel and toasted fennel seeds, then sauté over moderate until just softened, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushrooms, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, turn to high until it just reaches a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Pour into a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée in pulses until smooth.

Pour the puréed soup into a large heavy saucepan, add the cream, and gently reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking. Ladle into shallow soup bowls and strew with tarragon ribbons.

FENNEL, MUSHROOM & PROSCUITTO PANINI

1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and thinly sliced, almost shaved
4 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 oz proscuitto, very thinly sliced
4 oz taleggio or fontina cheese, sliced

Artisan bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill sparingly with fennel, mushrooms, proscuitto and top with some taleggio. The bread should be the star.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight(s) on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. It should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing cheese.

Pourboire: foods known to reduce stress include asparagus, avocado, berries, beef, cottage cheese, fish, milk, nuts, oranges, pasta, rice, whole grain breakfast cereals and breads, raw vegetables, cooked spinach, tea, and dark chocolate. Some foods are chocked with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B-6 and B-12 while others increase magnesium, folic acid, calcium and serotonin levels. These foods also counteract cortisol & epinephrine, the so-called “stress hormones” secreted by the adrenal glands.

Herbs & Capers

July 9, 2011

The mind is its own place.

I began to write about how this week Colts tight end John Mackey died from frontal temporal dementia the result of multiple cerebral trauma; how cyclist Chris Horner suffered a severe concussion from a Tour crash on a narrow, ditched road forcing his confused withdrawal; how over decades hundreds of thousands of now forgotten soldiers have sustained grave head injuries, coming home afoot or in boxes. All of that rattled gray matter. The altered consciousness, amnesia, flashbacks, dizziness, seizures, ringing ears, double vision, skewed dreams, agonized psyches, malaise, deprived sleep, anxiety, woeful depression…and more. So much more than a dismissive “shake it off” or simplistic alert + oriented x 3.

Instead, my memory safely drifted to sunflowers. During a recent stage in Normandie, the peloton swept by a field teeming with these flowering heads. But, the yellow radiant blooms were turned away, shyly shunning the cameras. Yet somehow, almost bewitchingly, the brain adjusted and turned the hidden lemon flowers toward the mind’s eye. Despite reality, my mind embraced a yellow pallette.

HERB & CAPER SAUCE

1 C ciabatta or baguette, crusts removed, torn into pieces
3 T sherry or champagne vinegar

3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

1 C fresh flat leaf parsley
3 T basil leaves
1 t fresh thyme leaves
1/2 t fresh sage leaves

4 T capers, rinsed and drained
1 egg yolk

1 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the bread and sherry or champagne vinegar, and toss together, and allow sit for 10 minutes or so

Turn on a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and add the garlic. Chop more finely, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you pulse the processor. Add the herbs to the processor, and pulse several times until contents are finely chopped. Add the bread, capers and egg yolk to the bowl, and pulse the processor on and off until well blended, about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape down the sides again, then turn on and add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drizzle over grilled or roasted meats, fish, breads, and even pasta.

Less is more.
~Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect

Bleat: Middle English bleten, from Old English blǣtan; akin to Latin flēre to weep, Old English bellan to roar — more at BELLOW; before 12th century; intransitive verb: to make the natural cry of a sheep or goat; also: to utter a similar sound, such as whimper.

Classic comfort with simple, balanced charm. A BLT may lack culinary show but when constructed of noble, hand hewn ingredients, it should be canonized. Superb bacon, artisanal bread, indulged aioli, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh lettuce. Should you take the next step (which I invariably do)…farm fresh eggs. This is food synergy rarely replicated, and done in the right ratios, BLT is the stuff of fetish. You know who you are.

The first bite will make you whimper, and on a good day, the last will produce a sated bellow (or bleat).

BLT

4 thick slices of superior slab bacon

2 thick slices artisanal bread, such as ciabatta, pain au levain or focaccia, toasted
Aioli
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heirloom tomato slices
Butter lettuce leaves

2 t unsalted butter
1 t extra virgin olive oil
2 large farm fresh eggs

Fresh avocado, pitted, peeled and sliced (optional)

In a large, heavy skillet, cook the bacon over moderate heat, turning, until crisp, about 8 minutes or so. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Spread the aioli on the top slice of toast. Then top the bottom slice of toast with the bacon, tomato and lettuce. However you stack it, avoid having the bleeding fresh tomatoes directly touching the bread which can turn sodden.

In a small, nonstick skillet, melt the butter and oil. Add the eggs and fry over moderate heat, until cooked with the yolk should still runny. They are done when the whites are set and the outer edges are just starting to curl. If the edges start to curl before the whites in the center are fully cooked, cover the pan with a lid. Carefully slide the eggs onto the lettuce and close the sandwich.

Pourboire: this may need be a forethought and not an option. The restaurant technique of chucking the skillet and oven roasting the bacon allows you to cook more strips which are more evenly cooked with less mess. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Arrange strips on a metal rack and place on the lined baking sheet. Roast–rotating the pan once halfway through cooking–until brown and crispy, about 20-30 minutes. Cooking time varies based upon oven and bacon thickness. Drain on paper towels.