I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.
~Nicolas Kurti, physicist and chef

Kepler 425b, one of the closest, yet older, cousins to our own earth, has been found. (Perhaps the orb age is a celestial topic upon which both seculars and Christians can finally, somewhat agree.) A so called exoplanet which is some 60% larger than our world was discovered by the Keplar spacecraft, some 1,400 light years away in the habitable zone — where water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. It revolves around a bright star in about 385 days, and the temperatures are suitable for liquid although the jury is out whether the planet has a mountainous surface or is gassy like Neptune. Both Kepler 425b and its star (G-2 type) closely resemble the earth and our sun.

Many opine that this exoplanet will have a bulky atmosphere, rocky crust and restless volcanoes with more gravity than we experience. Does Kepler 452b sustain life?

Awe inspiring.

Admittedly, the under-served, lifted and puffy soufflé with its molten interior is almost sacred.

MUSHROOM SOUFFLE

2 T finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 1/2 T unsalted butter

1/2 lb mushrooms (wild fungi such as cèpes, porcini, oyster or chanterelles or, if too expensive, buy cultivated such as crimini, shitake and button)
2 T unsalted butter

2 1/2 T unsalted butter
3 T all purpose flour
1 C whole milk
1 bay leaf

1/4 t pimentón
1/2 t sea salt
Nutmeg, a small grating
White pepper, a healthy pinch, preferably freshly ground
Cayenne pepper, a small pinch

4 large local egg yolks
5 large local egg whites
1 C gruyère cheese, grated

Gruyère cheese, grated, for topping

Preheat oven to 375 F

Melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in saucepan. Add the mushrooms and sauté for about 3 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and purée. Set aside.

Butter the surface of an 6 cup soufflé dish. Add the grated parmigiano-reggiano and roll around the dish to cover the sides and bottom, knocking out the excess.

Heat the milk with bay leaf in a heavy saucepan. Once hot, discard bay leaf and set aside the milk.

In another heavy saucepan, melt the butter, then blend in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a smooth loose paste. Stir over medium heat until the butter and flour come together without coloring more that a light yellow, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Let stand a few seconds and then pour in all of the hot milk, whisking vigorously to blend. Return to medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon; bring to a gentle boil for 3 minutes or until the sauce is quite thick. Whisk in the pimentón, salt, nutmeg and peppers and remove from heat again. Add the mushroom mash and mix well with the whisk.

While off the heat, add egg yolks one by one into the milk, herb and mushroom sauce, all the while whisking.

In a separate bowl, using a hand or stand up mixer wither fitted with a whisk, whip the egg whites until glossy and peaked. Stir in a quarter of the egg whites into the sauce with a wooden spoon or spatula. Once they are assumed in the sauce, fold in the remaining egg whites and the gruyère cheese. Turn the soufflé mixture into the prepared mold, which should be about three quarters full. Sprinkle a small amount grated gruyère on top.

Bake 25-30 minutes, until the top is golden brown, and the soufflé has puffed about 2″ over the rim of the mold. (Do not open oven door for 20 minutes.)

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A Horizontal Culture

September 24, 2015

Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.
~George Bernard Shaw

Since Pope Francis addressed and postured (rightly so) before the chambers of discontent, the 114th U.S. Congress, please allow me to again pontificate about cheese.

Ricardo C. Rodríguez de la Vega, PhD. is a bespeckled, seemingly unassuming professor and evolutionary biologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and University of Paris-Sud, who enjoys savoring the wares at local fromageries (cheese shops) along with his colleagues. Been there, done that, but not in such a scientific manner. There are sound reasons for this repetitive behavior…well, besides the sublime aromas and delectable pungencies. These scientists are attempting to reconstruct the genetic natures of molds used to make cheeses.

So, to craft Roquefort, cheese makers use Penicillin roqueforti and mix them into the fermenting curds and then drop the loaves into limestone caves. The resultant mold spreads throughout and not only gives the cheese its characteristic blue stripes but also the singular saltiness. On another note, cow’s milk, soft brie is inundated with Penicillin camemberti or candidum which diffuses over the outside of the cheese and thus becomes the bloomy rind — which I flat adore.

But, turns out that it is more just than the human induced mold. These same live molds drew, unknown to their captors, from new varieties of dioxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from even distantly related species, also known as horizontal gene transfers. So, a cheese organism will grab some DNA from foreign species and absorb it into its own genome. A heavenly exercise in evolution.

PARSNIPS AND TURNIPS AU GRATIN

2 plump, fresh garlic cloves + 1 stick of unsalted butter

1 lb parsnips, peeled and sliced
1-1 1/2 lb turnips, peeled and sliced
1-1 1/2 C Gruyère, grated

Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Thyme

1+ C cream

Heat oven to 375 F

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin dish with a crushed garlic clove and then butter the dish well with the end of a stick of butter.

Layer the parsnips, turnips and cheese in a gratin dish, sprinkling every other layer with salt, pepper and thyme.

Carefully and slowly pour in cream.

Roast in the oven until the root vegetables are tender and easily pierced with a fork, some 45-50 minutes.

Pourboire: speaking of, why do Americans persist in wrapping soft cheese beforehand in cling wrap when waste is notably prevalent, and other cultures gently place cheese, just after slicing, in waxed or parchment paper? Oh, and serve at room temperature, especially with soft cheeses.

‘Tis an ill cook who cannot lick his own fingers.
~William Shakespeare

Breasts may receive all the attention. But, boring breasts candidly need a rest. On the other hand (so to speak), thighs should take home the praise in terms of sublime flavor, savory succulence, delectable simplicity, forgiveness, and even economy. Dark meated, myoglobin rich, luxurious thighs are the shit — sweet temptresses, in my humble. Plus, ’tis the season for figs.

THIGHS WITH PAPPARDELLE, FETA AND FIGS

4-6 boneless chicken thighs, free range

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
White pepper, a pinch
Cayenne pepper, a pinch
Fresh rosemary leaves, diced
Fresh thyme leaves
Fresh sage leaves, diced
3-4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Extra virgin olive oil, to just cover

2 T unsalted butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh, garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3/4 C feta cheese
1/2 C capers, drained

Thyme leaves
1/2 C red wine
10 fresh figs (whether Brown Turkey, Black Mission, Kadota or Calimyrna), diced
1 1/2 T local honey

Artisanal pappardelle

Bring a large, heavy pot of water to a rolling boil and then liberally add sea salt.

Place the chicken between a thick wooden cutting board and plastic wrap. Firmly yet gently pound each thigh until thinner but also uniform in thickness. Season with salt and black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, rosemary, thyme, sage and garlic. Cover with some olive oil and place the chicken in a large ziploc bag for about 2 hours, turning a couple of times.

Remove chicken and discard marinating garlic. Add two pads of butter, a touch of olive oil and smashed garlic to a large, heavy skillet and once sizzling, but not brown, discard garlic and add chicken thighs and saute about 5 minutes per side. Early on the second side, add the feta until it becomes warm at least and tent well or place in a low preheated oven. Right before serving thighs, add capers.

Then, to the same skillet add red wine, figs, and later honey until cooked. Meanwhile, cook artisanal pappardelle noodles for until tender, about 3 minutes, in boiling water. Carefully strain through a colander.

Serve chicken thighs plus feta and capers over pappardelle with cooked figs on the side on plates. (Feel free to eat the thighs with your fingers.)

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.

Fennel & Fertile Figs

November 16, 2011

And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they saw that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
~The Bible, Genesis 3:7

A moist, cleft, ripe, dehiscent, succulent fruit. Long a sacred symbol of fertility, the common fig (Ficus carica) is a deciduous tree which was first cultivated in the fecund triangle between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia. From there, figs spread through Asia Minor and Arab lands ultimately making their way to India and China and thence by way of Phoenician and Greek sailors, throughout the Mediterranean basin. The plants were first introduced to the New World, notably the West Indies and South American west coast, by Spanish and Portugese missionaries in the early 16th century. Figs were then imported to Mexico and coursed up to California where Franciscan missionaries planted them in mission gardens.

The word fig first came into English early in the 13th century, from the Norman Old French figue, itself from Vulgar Latin fica, from Latin ficus—still the proper botanical genus name of fig trees. The Latin word is related to the Greek sykon or σῦκον meaning “fig” or “vulva” and the Phoenician pagh “half-ripe fig.”

The fig sign (mano fico) can prove knotty in some social circles. It is made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers, forming a clenched fist with the thumb partly peering out. Likely of Roman origin, it was displayed as a positive gesture to encourage fertility and ward away evil. Apparently, demons were so repelled by the notion of eroticism and reproduction that they fled at the sign. In a few locales, this hand gesture is still a sign of good luck, but in many others it is considered an obscene, disparaging insult. While the precise reason for this nuancal dichotomy is unknown, many historians posit that this fist depicts female genitalia (fica is Italian slang for “vulva”) and others see an image of sexual union in the making. How could either be thought obscene? Always consider your audience, I suppose.

FENNEL, ONION & FIG PIZZA

Pizza dough (see below)

2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1/2 C yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 t sugar
1 medium fennel bulb, outer leaves removed, cored and thinly sliced
8-10 fresh figs, sliced

Pinch of lemon zest
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 T fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 lb taleggio cheese, rind removed and sliced thinly

Walnuts, coarsely chopped and toasted
Parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 500 F with pizza stone inside hot oven at least 30 minutes.

In a large, heavy skillet heat olive oil over medium heat. Add smashed garlic, stirring, until only light brown. Remove and discard. Then, add sliced onions and sugar and stir occasionally, about 5-6 minutes. Add the sliced fennel, reduce heat to medium low, another 5-6 minutes. Cover and cook gently, stirring often, until the fennel and onion are tender, sweet and beginning to caramelize, about 15 minutes. Uncover, add sliced figs and cook an additional 2-3 minutes. Add lemon zest, nutmeg, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Stir together gently and remove from heat.

Roll out dough on a lightly corn mealed or floured surface. Lightly brush with olive oil.

Evenly arrange the taleggio slices on the pizza dough, leaving the border uncovered. Arrange the onion-fennel-fig mixture on top.

Bake the pizza, until just golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. When cooked, finish with toasted walnuts and immediately garnish with a light drizzle of olive oil and a delicate dose of grated parmigiano reggiano.

Pizza Dough

Extra virgin olive oil to coat bowl

1 C warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast packet
1 T organic honey

3+ C all purpose flour
1 t sea salt
3 T extra virgin olive oil

Pour warm water into small bowl; stir in yeast and honey until it dissolves. Let stand until yeast activates and forms foam or bubbles on the surface, about 5 minutes.

Rub large bowl lightly with olive oil. Mix flour and salt in stand up, heavy duty mixer equipped with flat paddle. Add yeast mixture, flour, salt and olive oil; mix on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Refit mixer with dough hook and process at medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic—or transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead dough by hand until smooth. Kneading helps develop strength and elasticity in the dough. During this step, add more flour by spoonfuls if dough is too sticky. Work dough with hands into a smooth ball.

Transfer to large oiled bowl, turning dough until fully coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then a dishtowel and let dough rise in warm draft free area until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes for quick rising yeast and about twice that for regular yeast. Punch down dough and work with hands into a smooth ball. Cut and divide into two rounded equal balls.

Place dough on well floured board or large work surface and roll out, starting in center and working outward toward edges but not rolling over them. Roll the dough to roughly 12 inches in diameter, but always feel free to create any shape to your liking or whim. Transfer to a pizza paddle which is dusted in either cornmeal or flour so it can slide off easily into the oven.

Pourboire: consider crumbling some goat cheese, such as some Bûcheron, over the pie before you slip it into the oven; or bring some sautéed proscuitto into the mix.

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.

Butter Bleu

November 29, 2010

Eat butter first, and eat it last, and live ’til a hundred years be past.
~Dutch proverb

The average intake for Thanksgiving Day in this svelte land is a mere 4,500 calories…followed by a sedate evening of potatoing. Here is some buddah to slather on your meat should you may have fallen short of conspicuous consumption goals this past weekend. Huah!

BLEU COMPOUND BUTTER

8 T (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/4 C Roquefort or Bleu d’Auvergne cheese

1/2 T fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
1/2 T fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
1/2 T plump fresh garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
Multi-colored freshly ground peppers (red, green, white)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a food processor or standing mixer, whip butter and cheese together until well combined. Add thyme, rosemary, and garlic. Season to your liking with salt and peppers and mix further by pulsing until smooth.

Place butter mixture down the center of plastic wrap enveloped by parchment paper and roll the butter forming a 1 1/2″ diameter log. Discard paper and chill plastic wrapped butter log overnight in refrigerator. Remove compound butter from refrigerator, slice into 3/4″ discs, and allow to rest about 20-30 minutes before use. Place one or two slices of compound butter on each slab of hot grilled, roast or sautéed meat and allow to melt.

Pourboire: Compound butters can also be readily frozen for up to a couple of months.