Europe’s the mayonnaise, but America supplies the good old lobster.
~D.H. Lawrence

The sequence goes something like this.  First, lobsters often live in muddy and murky crevices on the sea floor. Then, clawed lobsters (Homarus americanus + Homarus gammarus) are lured into traps offshore ofttimes on the bottom of the chilly northern Atlantic. They frequently stay in the traps baited with dead fish for a couple of days. Once the rancid cages are brought aboard, they are often placed in chilled holding tanks, so when trapped and pulled onto the deck the lobsters will be cold enough to make the return trip.  They are brought into the bay and distributed to trucks, still alive, for transport to local and distant restaurants and stores.  Once bought, they soon meet their maker in the steamer or boiling water.

At first in this country, lobsters were so copious and abundant they were only fed to slaves, indentured servants, prisoners, paupers, lower caste folks, and poor children — much to their chagrin. In contracts, employers went so far as to bar impoverished employees and laws were even passed, from eating this demeaned crustacean more than twice per week. Other than that, these “bugs” were deemed worthy of only being used as fodder, fertilizer, fish bait and fed to goats and pigs.

No longer.  Now, these omnivorous and sometimes cannibalistic sea scavengers which eat bottom food are the grub of the genteel. Moreover, the leggy lobster population is sorely depleted due in large part to the warming and acidification of the oceans which degrades their hard exoskeleton, giving them a form of osteoporosis.  They, along with other shelled animals, are unable to extract calcium carbonate from the water.

A lobster fishermen’s job is quite demanding and rife with risk, darkness, sea swells, fierce body slamming wet sprays and for those unfortunate enough to find themselves overboard, the frigid drink.  As big pharma loves to tout, sometimes this seemingly serene drug can result in death.

LOBSTER WITH FETTUCINE, TAGLIATELLE, OR PAPPARDELLE, GARLIC & CREAM

2 lobsters, 1 1/2 lbs each

2 T butter
1 small carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
bay leaves
A few thyme sprigs
3 C water

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
4-6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t hot red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 C white wine
1 1/2 T tomato paste

3/4 C heavy whipping cream
1 lb linguini or pappardelle pasta, fresh or dry (if dry, follow the instructions on the box)
3-4 T chopped parsley or cilantro leaves
2-3 t lemon zest

Steam or boil lobsters for 5-6 minutes. Cool to room temperature under somewhat cool water. Separate claws and tails from lobster heads and remove tail meat from shell. Pull away black vein and discard, then cut meat into 1/2″ slices and set aside. Firmly yet gently hit claws with a wooden or metal mallet, without removing meat, and set aside.

With a heavy blade, split lobster heads in half lengthwise. Remove and discard stomach sacks and tomalley, if wanted, and roughly chop tail shell. Heat butter in a heavy saucepan or skillet over medium high. Add heads and shells, with juices, and sauté for about 1 minute. Add carrot, celery, bay leaves and thyme and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Add 3 cups water and simmer rapidly for about 10 minutes to reduce by half. Strain, discarding shells, herbs and vegetables. You should yield 1 1/2 cups rich lobster stock.

Wipe pan with a towel or paper towel and return to stove over medium high heat. Warm the extra virgin olive oil in the saucepan or skillet, then add diced onion, garlic and hot pepper flakes. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring, until onions are completely soft, about 12-15 minutes.

Add wine and simmer rapidly for 2 minutes, then add tomato paste and lobster broth. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then add cream and simmer until sauce has thickened somewhat, about 5 minutes more. Turn off heat and adjust seasoning.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of amply salted water to a boil. Once roiling add pasta and cook until al dente. Reheat sauce, add cracked lobster claws and simmer for 2 minutes. Add sliced lobster meat and cook for a minute or less, until just heated through. Drain pasta and add to sauce, tossing to coat noodles with lobster, then transfer to serving bowls. Arrange one claw on top of each serving and sprinkle with parsley or cilantro and lemon zest.

LOBSTER SALAD

2 lobsters, 1 1/2 pound each

1/2 C homemade mayonnaise (see below)
Fresh lemon juice, to taste
2 t thinly sliced chives
1/2 C basil leaves, chiffonaded
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring amply salted water to a boil in a large, heavy pot and cook the lobsters for around 6-7 minutes. Remove the lobsters from the water and allow them to reach room temperature by running them under water. Once cooled, remove the claws and knuckles from the lobster, cut the lobsters in half lengthwise and trim off the smaller legs. Remove the lobster meat from the shells, reserving the bodies and cut the meat into 1/2″ pieces.

Accoutre the lobster meat with mayonnaise, lemon juice, chives, basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve on small salad plates.

Mayonnaise

4 large local egg yolks, room temperature
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
1 t sea salt
Tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

1 1/3 C canola or grapeseed oil

Separate egg whites from yolks. Egg yolks contain a natural emulsifier, lecithin, which helps thicken sauces and bind ingredients.

With a balloon whisk, whip together the egg yolks, mustard, wine vinegar or lemon juice, salt, cayenne pepper in a medium glass or metal bowl. Do not use plastic.

Add a few drops of oil while whisking; then pour in the oil slowly, in a very thin stream, while whisking vigorously with the bowl tilted at an angle on a folded towel. The emulsion should become thick enough to hold its shape and appear voluptuously creamy. Be patient because if you add the oil too rapidly the mayonnaise will break and turn soupy.

If the mayonnaise is too thick, it can be thinned by whisking in a little water.

Stored in the refrigerator, the mayonnaise should last 4-5 days.

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Tortas de Huevos (Egg Tortas)

December 20, 2015

A man’s social rank is determined by the amount of bread he eats in a sandwich.
~F. Scott Fitzgerald

This was much like our usual grist while camping in the gentle chaparral overlooking The Big Blue with infused fragrances of eucalyptus and rosemary. So, as with many other meals, it does bring back both fond yet conflicting memories.

Despite my indifference and sometimes general disdain about “religious holidays,” this dish would be so exquisite on that eve or next morning. One might as well eat, drink, and abound in this brief slice of life on earth, right?  So, keep this mock celebration of whatever or whomever (whose total lack of exactitude of birth in day or year astounds) a pagan or epicurean one.

Torta is a regional variety of flatbread which is a sandwich of sorts with divergent fillings that has existed from Spain to Portugal to Central America to Mesoamerica to Mexico to South America to the Caribbean and the Phillipines (most places Latin)

In essence, one makes scrambled eggs, then scoops them over bread with a slurry of cheese and other condiments already slathered on fine bread and finally topped with avocado (which happened to be indigenous to the region). Simple enough, yet really pleasing, especially with a fluent champagne that has a killer balance yet retains silky vibrancy.

Enough said?  Because this is holla good grub, a gastronome’s gem.

TORTAS DE HUEVOS (EGG TORTAS)

10 large, local eggs
A dollop of heavy whipping cream
White pepper
Dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of cayenne pepper
3-4 T unsalted butter

1 can chipotle chiles en adobo, drained
1 can black beans, drained

Tortas or Ciabatta rolls, cut almost into halves

1 1/2 C Chihuahua queso, grated

2 Haas avocados, peeled, pit discarded, thinly sliced

Chipotle salsa

Preheat oven to 350 F

Whisk the eggs with the cream, white pepper, thyme, sea salt and black pepper, cayenne until well combined.

Purée the chipotles en adobo sauce in a food processor until smooth and then afterwards the black beans until smooth.

Spread a thin layer of the chipotles en adobe over the bottom of each torta or ciabatta roll. Top with a layer of puréed black beans divided between the tortas or ciabatta rolls.

Melt the butter in a 12″ heavy non-stick skillet over low to medium heat because the eggs toughen rapidly. Pour in the egg mix and gently scrape the sides and bottom of the pan with a wooden spatula. Once the eggs have barely formed soft curds, and they are somewhat moist, remove the pan from the heat.

Divide the eggs between each torta or ciabatta roll. Sprinkle on the Chihuahua queso and cover with the top of the roll. Wrap in foil and place in the oven, baking for about 7-10 minutes until the cheese has melted and the torta or ciabatta has warmed. Unwrap each bun, remove the tops and place slices of avocado over the interiors of the sandwiches.

Serve with a side of chipotle salsa.

Bread + Eggs + Chipotles + Beans + Queso + Avocado.  Now, assemble with salsa nearby.

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.

 

Gnocchi Mañana

September 6, 2011

Language is the dress of thought.
~Samuel Johnson

Those ethereal pillows, gnocchi, derive from the Italian word nocchio, (a knot in wood or gnarl) or even perhaps from nocca (knuckle). In the Venetian dialect, nocchio became gnoco and from there it transitioned to gnocco and its plural gnocchi.

The phonetics are sometimes mistreated. The palatal nasal “gn” phoneme which introduces the word, is transcribed as ɲ and does not really exist in English. It more approximates the Spanish sound ñ as in cañon or mañana. The consonantal sound ɲ can be produced by obstructing airflow in the vocal tract and articulated with the middle or back part of the tongue raised against the hard palate. Air is allowed to escape from the nose while vibrating the vocal cords during delivery.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol for this “gn” phoneme is ɲ with a notably leftward directed tail protruding from the bottom of the left stem of the letter. Cf n and ɲ. This symbol ɲ should also not be confused with ɳ, the symbol for the retroflex nasal sound, which has a rightward directed hook extending from the bottom of the right stem or with ŋ, the symbol for the velar nasal sound, which has a leftward directed hook extending from the bottom of the right stem.

The open-mid back rounded IPA vowel symbol ɔ sounds similar to the English vowels in “thought.” The ch sounds like k and the i is pronounced like a long e.

So just say it aloud, gnocchi [‘ɲɔkki], cook with aplomb, and savor these airy gems.

GNOCCHI WITH LEEKS & SERRANO

3 lbs. russet potatoes

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 extra large egg or 2 medium eggs
1-2 C all-purpose flour, as needed

1/2 lb. leeks, greens discarded, halved lengthwise, cut thinly into half moons
8 T (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 C chicken stock
1/2 T fennel seeds, toasted then finely ground

1/4 C serrano ham, diced
3 t fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated

Put the potatoes a large pot or saucepan of water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 35-40 minutes. Drain well. When still warm yet cool enough to handle, peel. Pass the flesh through a ricer or food mill and then spread onto a work surface.

Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a large pot, then season liberally with salt.

Season the cooled potatoes with salt and pepper. On the work surface, form the potatoes into a mound and make a well in the center. Sprinkle with the flour. Put the egg(s) into the well and use your fingers to blend into the potato until well incorporated. Using your hands, gently and gradually knead until the mixture forms a dough. Overkneading may make the dough tougher, so keep it to the minimum needed to obtain a uniform consistency, dusting extra flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface. Gather the dough into a ball. Do not overwork the dough or the end result will be tough. It should be firm and fairly dry to the touch.

Divide the dough into six balls, then roll each orb into long cylinders, each about 3/4″ in diameter. Use a paring knife to cut the ropes into 1″ pieces. Roll each piece along the back of a fork using the tines to form ridges in whose nooks and crannies the sauce finds refuge.

Ready an ice bath.

Drop gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they float to the surface, about 1-2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon and fish them out to the waiting ice bath. Drain well and transfer to a bowl for later.

In a large, heavy skillet, melt a half stick of the butter over low heat. Add the leeks and garlic and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Stir in the chicken stock, fennel, and the remaining butter. Cook over medium heat until reduced by half, about 7-9 minutes. Stir in the leeks, serrano, and parsley.

Add the gnocchi to sillet and coalesce with the remaining ingredients. Season with salt, pepper, and grated parmigiano-reggiano. Serve promptly.

GNOCCHI WITH GORGONZOLA & WALNUTS (GNOCCHI GORGONZOLA e NOCI)

3 T gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
3 T butter
6 T heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Grating of nutmeg
1/2 C walnuts, toasted roughly chopped

1 T fresh oregano leaves, julienned
Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add gorgonzola, butter, cream and walnuts with a pinch of black pepper and nutmeg. Mix together until the cheese is melted and the sauce becomes silky. Then add the walnuts and toss some further.

Cook gnocchi as above and toss into the gorgonzola sauce.

Sprinkle with parmigiano-reggiano and oregano.

America is my country and Paris is my hometown.
~Gertrude Stein

It may seem obvious from past ramblings that I am an unabashed francophile. So, given that yesterday was Bastille Day, allow me to regale some. Every year this month we should remember and embrace the many bonds between both the republics of America and France. (America should now be more accurately deemed an oligarchy.) Founded upon principles of liberty and equality and violent revolutions launched by a deep resentment and distrust of monarchies, these countries do have kindred origins. Unfortunately, in our age of microwave memory, bumper sticker rhetoric and historical ignorance, the shared admiration which should infuse our relationship is so often discarded. Rational discourse sometimes devolves into jingoist rant. Even given the many errors of both countries’ ways and the diplomatic tensions that have arisen, some mutual respect and affection should bathe both sides of the pond.

To some, France and America may seem improbable partners. But, before you go there consider:

French fur traders and explorers blazed territories on the continent never before seen by whites.

The Revolutionary War which granted sovereignty and independence to the colonies would have likely been lost if not for French financial support, military backing, and naval superiority at Yorktown.

Marquis de La Fayette, who served as major general in the Continental Army and negotiated an increase in French patronage, was considered the adoptive son of George Washington.

The first comprehensive sociological study of the American people was written by a French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville.

The French language, which was the tongue of the English court and the civilized world, has lent so many words and phrases to American English.

The states more than doubled in size with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France.

The Statue of Liberty, other statues and urban design plans were courtesy of French artists and designers.

Millions of Americans are of French descent and many still embrace the culture and language.

Flocks of exuberant American writers, musicians, artists have studied and performed freely in France.

During both world wars, innumerable American and French soldiers and civilians perished side by side on French soil.

Each nation has brazenly borrowed, shared and mimicked the other’s cultures, cuisines, wines, music, art, architecture, styles, and clothing.

Far from a comprehensive list.

This is not to say that meaningful criticism is out of order. Face it—neither country has been beyond reproach. Over history, both France and America have engaged in rampant colonialism, have committed heinous judicial sins, have pursued political imperialism, and have displayed condescending and arrogant behavior. Both have invaded, dominated and subordinated, even enslaved, other peoples. Both have cruelly and shamefully imprisoned, tortured, maimed and killed in the vainglorious name of the state. Both have engaged in improvident, tragic wars. Neither have clean hands. France and America have shared in some disgraceful histories, and ordinary citizens have a duty to remind partisan politicians and biased press alike.

These are imperfect societies governed by imperfect, sometimes maladjusted, peoples. They are ongoing political and anthropological experiments. Our cultural similarities should be cherished and the dissimilarities should not just be accomodated, but nutured. Mutual respect and a sane, humble historical perspective should ever underly our differences…with ever vigilant eyes toward not repeating dark history.

Chauvinism under the guise of patrotism has no place at this table. Pots de crème, chilled champagne and good company do.

POTS DE CREME

3 ozs superior bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), cut into small pieces

2 C heavy cream
1/2 C whole milk

5 egg yolks
1/4 C granulated sugar
Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 325 F

Melt the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl set over a heavy sauce pan with gently simmering water. When the chocolate is close to being melted, turn off the heat and let stand until completely melted.

Meanwhile, in a medium sauce pan, scald the cream and milk.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt until the sugar is completely dissolved. Very slowly whisk the hot cream mixture into the yolks so that the eggs do not cook.

Pour the hot cream mixture through a fine mesh strainer into the melted chocolate. Whisk until fully incorporated and smooth.

Divide chocolate custard among 6 small ramekins. Line the bottom of a baking pan with a folded kitchen towel and arrange filled ramekins on towel. Pour in hot water to the halfway level on the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake in the hot water bath (bain marie), until custards are set around edges but still slightly wobbly in the center, 30 to 35 minutes.

Carefully remove the ramekins from the bain marie, and allow to cool to room temperature. Then, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 4 hours. Serve with a dollop of hazelnut whipped cream and a glass of bubbly.

Crème de Noisettes (Hazelnut Whipped Cream)

3 T hazelnuts
2 C heavy whipping cream
1 vanilla bean split, seeds scraped out
2 T sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F

Toast hazelnuts until brown, about 20 minutes. When the nuts are cool, rub them in your hands to release the papery skins. Chop them in a cook’s knife or pulse in the food processor fitted with the steel knife until finely ground.

In a small saucepan, bring cream just to the boil. Turn off the heat and add the nuts. Cover, and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and chill overnight.

The next day, pour the cream through a fine mesh strainer into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a whisk. Using the back of a wooden spoon, press on the nuts to push out the cream. Whip with vanilla and sugar until soft peaks form.

The right time to eat: for a rich man when he is hungry, for a poor man when he has something to eat.
~Mexican proverb

A thinner version of cousin crème fraîche, rich and delicately sour crema Mexicana is simply unpasteurized cream which is slightly thickened naturally by bacteria. Crema is often drizzled atop tamales, enchiladas, soups, eggs or even slathered on tortillas as a base for tacos. That is just a brief take south of the border.

Spread this velvety condiment with impunity hither, thither and yon and simply self-indulge. Adulterate most all with it. Once hooked, you’ll never savor a taco again without a spatter or squeeze of silky crema—a sauce undeniably deserving of those bourdainesque food porn tags and prurient innuendos.

Crema is more heat stable than sour cream and is less likely to break or separate while cooking. Covered and refrigerated, it will keep for about a week or so. In a pinch, you may also purchase crema at the local grocery or Latin market.

CHIPOTLE CREMA

2 t buttermilk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 T chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
Juice of 1/2 fresh lime
Pinch of cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1/4 t sea salt

Pour cream into a small saucepan over low heat and stir just until the chill is off the cream. Lukewarm it—do not scald or boil. Stir in the buttermilk and pour into a glass jar.

Place a lid over the jar but do not tighten or batten down the hatches. Set in a warm location and allow to rest for at least one full day until it is noticeably thicker, much like yogurt. Once thickened, stir gently and refrigerate at least 4 hours to complete the thickening process.

In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the crema with the chipotles in adobo sauce, lime juice, cumin and salt. Process on high speed until smooth.

AVOCADO CREMA

1 C+ crema
3 T fresh cilantro leaves, freshly chopped
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and roughly chopped

2 large avocados–halved, pitted, scooped and chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Pinch of sea salt

Make the crema as above or purchase at the store.

Add the cilantro and jalapeño to a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade, and purée until smooth. Add the crema, avocados, lime juice and salt and purée until combined. Taste and adjust the flavor by adding more salt if needed.

Pourboire: in a pinch, crema can be purchased at the local grocery or Latin market. Also, please draw on your imagination and consider versions where mashed, chunky avocado, chopped cilantro, minced garlic, minced roasted chiles, oregano, etc. are added to blend/process with the crema base. For instance, in the last batch of crema, I finished by adding a teaspoon or so of the unused dry rub for the low and slow roasted pork butt (salt, pepper, roasted & ground cumin seeds, dried oregano, dried sage, and dried ancho chile powder).

Mussels with Fennel & Friends

September 13, 2010

Anyse maketh the breth sweter and swageth payne.
~Turner’s Herbal (1551)

(For the record, I am far from a licorice candy provocateur—whether red, black or other rainbow color or shape. My dislike for licorice candy is doubtless partly genetic and partly environmental. Yet, I have always adored the hints of anise and fennel in food. An infrequent pastis served straight up or on the rocks with a side carafe of water is rarely declined. So, to those licorice naysayers, please keep an open mind as kitchen affable anise and fennel are strikingly dissimilar to the candy species.)

Native to Egypt, anise (Pimpinella anisum) is cultivated for its carminative and aromatic seeds. Used by Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C., the herb was also well known to the Greeks and Romans. The Arabic term anysum became the Greek anison and then anisun in Latin.

An annual plant, anise grows to about 1 1/2 to 2 feet high and has feathery upper leaves with clusters of dainty, creamy-white flowers. After flowering, the ribbed seeds ripen and are harvested. The cultivated seeds have a slight hint of licorice in flavor and the aroma of fennel.

Pastis, the so-called milk of Provence, is anise hooch. An ambience setting French apéritif (apéro), pastis emerged a decade or so following the absinthe debacle and the ultimate prohibition on that wormwood spirit during midstride World War I. In recent years, more complex, creative and aromatic blends of pastis have appeared on the market.

Pastis changes its appearance from dark transparent yellow to milky soft yellow and cloudy when lightly diluted with water. Cooking with pastis, whether to deglaze or braise, can be subtly radiant.

STEAMED MUSSELS WITH FENNEL & PASTIS

3 lbs mussels, scrubbed and cleaned

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 fennel bulb, cored, trimmed and and thinly sliced
1 T fennel seeds

1 large, ripe tomato, cored, seeded and diced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup pastis, such as Ricard or Pernod
1 cup heavy cream
1 sprig fresh tarragon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

In a large heavy Dutch oven or pot, bring to medium and add olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots and sweat until for 2-3 minutes. Then, add fennel, fennel seeds, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the tomato, white wine, pastis, cream, tarragon sprig, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cook for about 1-2 minutes.

Finally add the mussels, and cover the pot. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, about 3-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and finish with chopped tarragon.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette or artisanal bread slices.