The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.
~T.S. Eliot

Again the cold weather is upon us, so the time has come to deceive, to create illusions of reality, in our kitchens.

Are our buns, hands, soles and toes really nestled in sandy beaches somewhere on this earth? Are we contemplating the vastness of cerulean seas and cobalt skies dotted with cirrus clouds?  Must be…right?  What a remarkably silly, selfless yet sybaritic trompe-l’oiel!  At the same time, these are food paeans to our tribal past.

Now, some find boudin noir or Créole repugnant because the process traditionally contains pork blood. Well, so do filets, porterhouses, shoulders, briskets, strips, rib eyes, loins, tenderloins, sirloins, flanks, chops, tuna, liver, rumps, chuck, blades, tri tips, shanks, et al. — many humans simply choose to ignore that bloody carnal embrace. Yes, Virginia, there is red ink, congealed or not, in them thar cuts. Their will be blood and/or myoglobin. Then again, boudin noir is not for everyone.

But, being an offal aficionado, this dark hued savory charcuterie (much like pâtés, rillettes, galantines, ballotines, confits, foie gras, jambons and friends) is revered and regaled here. If most homo sapiens are omnivorous, honor should be bestowed upon the animal that graces our tables by eating the deceased from nose to tail. Again, the “blood” in boudin noir is cooked as with many other cuts.

Consider serving this renascence next to a small splash of smashed or mashed potatoes or even fried or poached eggs and sliced sautéed chiles or a simple baguette and unsalted butter and top the sausages on a mesclun salad with a vinaigrette and some root vegetables. Better yet, choose to present shortly after dining on accras de morue (cod fritters — a post found here on February 11, 2010) and sauce chien with a glass of Viognier or Côtes de Provence rosé or une bière blonde.  As with most plates, the choices seem endless.

Often savored sautéed or grilled, boudin noir may seem quotidien, but is simply seraphic.

BOUDIN NOIR

4-5 blood sausages (from fine butchers — local + high quality)
1-2 T unsalted butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Sprigs of rosemary and thyme

1/3 C Calvados (apple brandy)
3/4 C heavy whipping cream
2 t Dijon mustard
2-3 Granny Smith apples, cored and sliced somewhat thin

Grating of fresh nutmeg
Cinnamon stick
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 200 F.

Prick sausages in several spots with sharp knife or fork. Sauté over medium low heat in butter and olive oil (shimmering olive oil but the butter not browned) with rosemary and thyme, about 5-8 minutes, turning occasionally. Discard rosemary and thyme sprigs. Remove sausages from pan and place on heavy dish, tented, in very low oven while preparing sauce.

Remove and discard some of the excess fat from pan, turn heat to high and deglaze with Calvados, allowing to boil for about 30 seconds, then add apples, cooking them for a minute or so. Add the cream, mustard, nutmeg, cinnamon stick, salt and pepper. Reduce cream and mustard and friends by half and finally ladle over or under the boudin noir, removed from the oven. Discard the cinnamon stick, by the way.

 

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I am…a mushroom on whom the dew of heaven drops now and then.
~John Ford, The Broken Heart (1633)

A subtle tryst…seductively nutty, meaty, sponge-like fungi coupled with naughtily rich, creamy and velvety offal. Not much could be finer on earth. Spring rapture.

When shopping, make sure the sweetbreads are still virginal white, fleshy, plump and firm to the touch. As they are perishable, prep them that day and cook no later than the next. The elusive morel? Well, if you cannot precisely hunt and identify these mysterious foresty morsels–who inhabit logged and decaying elms, poplar, white ash, cherry and maple trees and tend to grow in heavy leaf cover, dried creek bottoms and heavy foliage, even clinging to river banks and mossy areas with rich black, humic soil–then know someone willing to discreetly reveal their caches (you will be sworn to secrecy) or attend the farmer’s market with wallet agape.

SWEETBREADS & MORELS

1 1/2 to 2 lbs sweetbreads, preferably veal
Whole milk

Sea salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, peeled and roughly chopped
8 peppercorns
8 pink peppercorns
Cold water

All-purpose flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T unsalted butter
2 garlics, peeled and smashed

3 T unsalted butter
3-4 C morel mushrooms, cleaned and halved lengthwise

2 T unsalted butter
Duck fat
3/4 C yellow Vidalia onion, peeled and finely chopped

3 T calvados or cognac
3/4 C dry red wine, such as a Rhône or Burgundy
1 1/2 C chicken stock
3 thyme sprigs, bound in twine
1 bay leaf

2 T apple cider vinegar
1-2 T Dijon mustard
3/4 C crème fraîche

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh tarragon leaves, chopped

The Prep
Briefly rinse sweetbreads under cold water. Place them in a glass bowl, cover with milk, and allow to soak several hours. Remove the sweetbreads, discarding the milk. Using a sharp paring knife and fingers, remove excess membrane or fat. Do not be intimidated by the peeling process, and do not fret if the sweetbreads separate some into sections. Rinse, pat dry and set aside.

Fill a heavy large saucepan or pot about three-quarters full of water, add a generous pinch of salt, lemon juice, bay leaf, shallot and peppercorns. Bring the water to a boil, add the sweetbreads, and poach for about 8-10 minutes. Remove the sweetbreads and briefly plunge them into an ice bath, then drain promptly and dry thoroughly.

Line a medium sheet pan with a kitchen towel and place the poached sweetbreads on the towel in a single layer. Fold the towel over them to cover, then place a same-sized sheet pan on top. Weigh the top pan down with whatever, e.g., a brick, tomato cans, a hand weight. Place in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight. Remove from towel, place on a platter or dish, cover with plastic wrap and allow to reach room temperature before cooking.

The Cook
Season sweetbreads first with salt and pepper and then dust with flour in a large glass bowl. Melt butter with garlic in a heavy, large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Discard garlic then lightly brown sweetbreads, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove sweetbreads to a dish, loosely tent, and set aside for later.

In a medium heavy skillet, heat butter over medium to medium high and add morels. Sauté until they release their liquid and are just slightly softened, then remove to a glass bowl and set aside.

Over medium high heat, add butter and a small spoonful of duck fat in the same heavy large skillet or sauté pan used for the sweetbreads earlier. Add the onions and cook until translucent and then just slightly golden. Deglaze the pan with calvados or brandy and allow to mostly evaporate. Then, add red wine and stock, increase heat to a boil and then reduce to a lively simmer.

Add sweetbreads, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, cover and gently simmer, until cooked yet still quite tender, about 8-10 minutes. Toward the end, add the sautéed morels and the juices from them. Then, carefully remove sweetbreads and morels to a dish, loosely tented. Also remove and discard the thyme sprig bouquet and bay leaf. Add the apple cider vinegar, mustard and crème fraîche and, stirring, reduce the sauce further over a higher heat until it thickens and nicely coats the back of a spoon. If necessary, season with salt and pepper to your liking. Add the sweetbreads and morels back into the pan to heat and briefly bathe in the sauce before plating.

Serve over a mound of lentils (lentilles) du Puy, puréed potatoes or turnips, fresh cappellini, or risotto. Plate sweetbreads and drizzle all with sauce, then garnish with chopped tarragon leaves.

Bocage country could be a nightmare, you could only see as far as the next field and in the lanes, only as far as the next bend.
Harvey Smith, of the Royal Engineers

Maybe part upbringing, pinches of observing, or just a zeal for history…but, I am still “studying” that abhorrent human endeavor called war. Although ever coveting peace and diplomacy, always innately inquisitive about conflict, strategy and the human suffering inflicted by wars. Probably a little incongruous. So, please bear with me, as this chapter came to mind when posting about Calvados.

Intimate documentary footage has recently emerged on the home screen depicting the battle for Normandie. Beginning with an amphibious invasion in early June, 1944, the campaign did not end on the heavily fortified beachheads, but raged into late August. Several days after the sand was secured, the Allies moved inland in several directions, including toward St Lo and the lethal bocage—where German 7th Army garrisons and SS Panzer divisions lay in mortal wait.

On peaceful days, the Norman bocage was a pastoral checkerboard of lush meadows dotted with apple orchards from which the local brandy, Calvados, was crafted. Each rectangular meadow was surrounded by thick hedgerows to block the winds from verdant pastures and plump cattle.

During war though, the bocage formed a lethal labyrinth of defensive barriers. Some hedges were eye level bushes while others were densely matted walls of earth and briery hedge, some 10 feet high and stippled with trees. Many were impassable for tanks, and communication between troops in the fields was limited. Slender lanes, crisscrossing and bending throughout, created ambush points and access to fields far away from regular routes.

The bocage concealed pockets of elite German infantry, including the vaunted 3rd Parachute Division. The hedgerows nested snipers, shielded point blank machine gun ambushes and concealed small arms fire…with only the entrenched defenders intimately acquainted with the lay of the land. Oncoming troops often found themselves exposed, naked in the open field. Close combat raged in thickly vegetated mazes bordering open space and replete with deadly incoming from concealed Tigers, the feared 88mm and mortars.

Typical tactics were ineffectual in the bocage. Hemmed in by hedgerows, platoons lost their sense of direction during skirmishes. Confusion and disorientation reigned. Agonizing missions rampant with carnage. Some of the fiercest fighting in the war took place in the bocage whose hedgerows and lanes formed killing zones not unlike those devised by trenches in World War I. As with the Great War, left behind were battlefields rife with dead and ruin. Shattered farmhouses and villages slumped as memorials to abolition. Tangled wire littered the fields and hedges, all barren of life but teeming with the stench and waste of war. Broken guns, downed tanks, bits of clothing, empty helmets, spent shells, and the sad remains of life.

And that was the abridged digression. Sorry, but seems such short shrift to me.

Calvados, a French apple brandy which is labeled for the terroir of the same name. Calvados, a notable apple and cider producing region, is located in Basse-Normandie in north France which borders the English Channel. The brandy is made from carefully culled apples, and it is not unusual for a producer to use over 100 different varieties in crafting this velvety hooch.

Like other chosen French food and drink, Calvados is governed by appellation contrôlée regulations. Calvados Pays d’Auge (AOC) is made through a two-step process called double distillation. Using a traditional alembic pot still, apple cider is heated causing the alcohol vapor to rise and collect and then ultimately course down through a coil and drip into a cold tank. On coming into contact with the coolant, the vapors condense into a liquid. The vapors at the beginning and end of first distillation process (heads and tails) which are and will be redistilled with the next cider, are eliminated to obtain the petite eau (small water). The heads, too high in alcohol, and the tails, lacking harmony, are carefully removed and distilled over again to perfection. Then a second heating occurs to further distill this petit eau. As before, the heads and tails are again separated off to preserve only the heart of distillation called the bonne chauffe. This staged process imparts complexity and concentrates the most delicate aromas and bouquet of the spirit, retaining only the finest components and eliminating the mediocre.

After distillation, the end product is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. As with many things in life, the longer it is aged, the smoother the end product.

VEAL SCALLOPS WITH CALVADOS & APPLES

3 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2″ slices
5 T lemon juice

10-12 veal scallops (1/2″ thick)
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dried sage
2 C flour

2 T butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C tablespoons calvados
1 1/2 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 170 F

Place apples in a bowl, add lemon juice, mix thoroughly so apples are thoroughly coated. Set aside.

Season veal scalloops with salt, pepper and a few pinches of sage. Then dip in the flour on a deep plate or dish, shaking off any excess. Heat butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. When hot and shimmering, add veal, spaced well, and saute until lightly brown on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. You should cook the veal in batches so it is not crowded and do not overcook or they will become shoe leather. Err on the low side of doneness. When the veal is cooked, arrange on a platter, loosely tent and place in the warm oven.

Add apples with lemon juice and Calvados to the pan. Scrape up all pan encrustations & cook over medium heat to deglaze for about 3-4 minutes. Add cream and continue cooking until the sauce has reduced by half and coats a spoon, about 8-10 minutes. Adjust seasoning to your liking with salt and pepper. Plate the scallops with apples artfully adjoining, spoon sauce over and serve immediately.