How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?
~Charles de Gaulle

A kitchen syllogism (with even a third premise): 1) Champagne pairs well with oysters. 2) Champagne couples splendidly with brie. 3) Champagne is simply sublime solo. Ergo

Christened the “Queen of Cheeses,” brie is an elegant, creamy, buttery soft French cow’s milk cheese. The cheese tooks its name from the area once called “Brie” which roughly corresponds to the modern département of Seine-et-Marne which is located in the Île-de-France region of France, often called the Région Parisienne or RP (the Paris Region).

To make brie, the curd is made by adding rennet—an enzyme that aids in separating curds from whey—to raw milk and then heating it at low temperatures. The separated curds are spread out in thin layers in molds and drained for almost a day, about 18 hours. The cheese rounds are removed from the molds, salted, and bacteria is introduced. Finally, the cheese is aged in caves for at least four to five weeks.

French brie differs significantly from that exported to the states. Real brie is unstabilized being made from unpasteurized raw cow’s milk, a practice prohibitied by the USDA. Our imported brie is made from pasteurized milk, remains alabaster white, has not developed properly and is simply not ripe or mature. Therefore, it is much milder and decidely less complex in aroma and flavor.

Brie should be served at room temperature, almost gooey, and the delicious rind is intended to be eaten. Because I tend to love brie au naturel with a crusty baguette, the liberal use of the cheese in this soup recipe occasionally makes me wince. The champagne finish is not optional, especially since the remainder of the bottle beckons.

OYSTER & BRIE SOUP

3 dozen medium oysters in their liquor
4 C cold water

1/2 lb unsalted butter
1/2 C all purpose flour
1 C onion, peeled and sliced
1/2 C celery, chopped
1/2 C carrots, chopped
1/2 t white pepper
1/2 t Cayenne pepper
1/2 t dried thyme

Pinch of sea salt
1 bay leaf

1 lb Brie cheese, rind on, cut in small wedges
3 C heavy cream
3/4 C champagne

Chives, for garnish

Combine oysters, oyster liquor and water together and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Strain and reserve the oysters and water separately.

In a large heavy skillet, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth but not browned. Increase the heat to medium, add the onions, celery and carrots and sauté until onions are translucent, about 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the white and Cayenne peppers and thyme and sauté about 2 minutes more, then set aside.

In a large heavy saucepan, bring the reserved oyster water along with the salt and bay leaf to a boil. Stir in the sautéed vegetable mixture until well mixed. Turn heat to high. Add brie and cook until cheese starts to melt, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Lower heat to a simmer and continue cooking for about 5 minutes stirring constantly. Remove from heat, strain soup and return to pot. Turn heat to medium high and cook about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in cream and cook until the soup reaches a gentle simmer, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the champagne.

Turn heat to low, add the oysters and allow them to plump for about 3 minutes. Serve immediately in shallow soup bowls, garnished with chives.

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When you make his sandwiches, put a sexy or loving note in his lunch box.
~Anne Rice

PANINI

Maybe with the current economic woes and ever expanding disparities in this country’s burgeoning two class chasm, it may be timely to discuss just a simple two ply sandwich…or even a panino. They share an affinity.

Before my panini palaver persists, I have to preface. Even though they are often dissed as nothing more than a portable meal, making a really damn good sandwich or panini demands every bit the same nurturing that many other fine dishes deserve. Unless you fail to thoughtfully coddle them, sandwiches do not merit that “lunch bucket–not cuisine label,” something to be gobbled hurriedly at your desk or in the car. Au contraire! Rather, choice sandwiches are memorable art forms, both inside and out…

A panino is a sandwich made from a small loaf of rustic bread which is cut horizontally on the bias and customarily filled with cured meat, cheeses and greens. The literal translation of panino is “roll” or “stuffed bread,” with the plural being panini.

As with much of food history or gastronomic anthropology (as those phrases are loosely used here and elsewhere), the story of the sandwich is muddled. Such an abundance of cultural variance, criss crossing civilizations, endless definitional nuances, and often bewildering oral traditions…humanity’s comings and goings. The concept of bread as a focal point to the eating experience has been present for eons, so historical precision is elusive (see Pizza & Calzone Dough).

The first recorded sandwich was purportedly assembled by the scholarly rabbi, Hillel the Elder, circa 100 B.C. He introduced the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between matzohs eaten with bitter herbs…a sandwich which is the fond of the Seder and bears his name.

During the Middle Ages, thick slices of coarse stale bread called trenchers were used instead of plates. Derived from the French verb trancher, which means “to slice or cut,” meats and other victuals were piled on these bread platters, eaten with fingers and sometimes with knives as forks had yet to find prevalence. The thick trenchers absorbed the juices, the greases, and rather primitive sauces, and afterwards the soaked breads were thrown to the dogs or offered as alms to the poor. With the advent of the fork, finger food became impolite which rendered the trencher outmoded.

The first Italian recipe that vaguely resembled a panino was that for panunto (greased bread) described by Domenico Ramoli at the end of the 16th century—he even got nicknamed by his dish.

While references to “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese” are found throughout English drama from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a delay in the evolution of the sandwich ensued. Thankfully, the concept was finally revived in the 18th century by John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty and patron to Capt. James Cook who explored New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and Polynesia; he even designated the Hawaiian Islands as the Sandwich Islands. Rumor holds that Montague was so addicted to gambling that he steadfastly refused to pause for meals and instead ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread. While legends vary, it remains beyond quarrel that the word “sandwich” bears the name of John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

The sandwich was introduced to the states by the English import Elizabeth Leslie in the 19th century. In her cookbook, Directions for Cookery, she authored a recipe for ham sandwiches, which have evolved into an American tradition in many sizes, shapes and forms.

With the demand for haste emerging in the last century, sandwiches—from simple to elegant–have risen to become a staple of western civilization, for both rich and poor. Panini have slowly evolved from being basic worker’s fare to become trendy morsels on the food scene.

On panini preparation: brush the outside of the panini with extra virgin olive oil and fill it with whatever whets your palate—cheeses, cured meats, herbs, etc. As with pizzas and pasta, do not overload the sandwiches as the bread should be allowed a place at the table too. Proportions = “perfection.”

Should you own a panini grill, by all means use it. If not, use 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 on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. The panini should be cooked to golden brown with grill marks and the innards pressed narrowly…usually slightly oozing with luscious cheese.

Recipes will follow on a subsequent entry, as I may have already overstayed my welcome with these ramblings. In the meantime, consider:

pesto, arugula, watercress, roasted peppers, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, tapenade, mozzarella, brie, gruyere, talleggio, fontina, pecorino, goat cheese, proscuitto, serrano, coppa, soppresatta, and pancetta, arugula, chard, basil, radicchio, baby spinach, extra virgin olive oil, truffle oil or salt, garlic oil, ciabatta, pain au levain, or baguette artisanal breads.

P.S. Use your imagination, as the possibilities prove endless.