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.

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Mustard — Good only in Dijon. Ruins the stomach.
~Gustave Flaubert

The word mustard derives from the Anglo-Norman mustarde and Old French mostarde. The term evolved from the Latin mustum, (must or young wine) as Romans mixed the unfermented grape juice, with ground mustard seeds (called sinapis) to make “burning must” or mustum ardens.

Dijon, once a Roman settlement, is now the capital city of the Côte-d’Or département in Bourgogne (Burgundy), a région in central eastern France. Once ruled by the infuential ducs de Bourgognes, it lies about 1h 40 southeast of Paris by TGV rail. By the 13th century, Dijon had became the gathering place for fine mustard makers and has since become known as the mustard capital of the world. Dijon mustard originated in 1856, when Jean Naigeon first substituted verjuice, the acidic juice of unripened grapes, for vinegar in the traditional recipe. The mustard is crafted from finely ground brown or black mustard seeds mixed with an acidic liquid (vinegar, wine, and/or grape must) and sparsely seasoned with salt and sometimes a hint of spice. No artificial colors, fillers or other additives are allowed.

Dijon mustard is customarily pale yellow in color, smooth in consistency, but fairly sharp in scent and flavor. Nose burning, nasal clearing, eye watering Dijon forte (strong) awaits you at pommes frites stands across France.

As for tomorrow. That woefully amateurish event, Valentine’s Day, is again upon us…when florists are deluged, chefs are beset, servers are frazzled, chocolatiers are harried and lovers are just barely that for one day. So, eschew that trite restaurant night and instead indulge that Hallmark moment at home. Shun the cloying mundane and think passion, ardor.

Open with seared scallops with apple cider vinegar or gougères — follow with rib eye steak au poivre or chicken dijon, puréed potatoes or risotto and haricots verts or asparagus with garlic — and end with hand crafted chocolate truffles or mousse au chocolat. Start with a glass of Champagne, then couple the app with a Chardonnay or Rosé de Provence and the entrée with a red Côtes du Rhône, Bourgogne or Oregon Pinot Noir. Just a traditional thought or two…the choices are boundless.

With that menu, candlelight, choice tunes, lively banter, and no dish detail, a night’s kiss may become a tad more carnal. Old school romance is still in vogue.

Cin-cin!

CHICKEN DIJON

1 T coriander seeds

2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
4 chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Dried tarragon

1/2 C shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1-2 T cognac or brandy
1 1/2 C chicken broth

1/2 C Dijon mustard
1/4 C crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Chopped tarragon

In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the coriander seeds until fragrant. Allow to cool then transfer the seeds to a spice grinder or mortar and let cool. Grind until coarse.

Season the chicken with salt, pepper and tarragon. (Lightly sprinkle the tarragon on the skin side only.) In a large, heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium high heat until shimmering, but take care to avoid burning the butter. After pressing them into and around the pan, discard the smashed garlics. Add the chicken to the skillet skin side down and cook over moderately high heat, turning once, until golden brown all over, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken to a platter and tent.

Pour off some of the residue oil and juices from the chicken. Add the shallots to the same pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Pour in the brandy and allow to cook off, then add the broth and ground coriander and bring almost to a boil. Add chicken, reduce heat, cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Turn the chicken once while cooking.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, crème fraîche and 1 tablespoon of fresh tarragon. Whisk the mixture into the skillet and simmer the sauce over moderate heat, occasionally stirring until thickened, about 5 minutes. While simmering if it appears the sauce needs thining, add some heavy whipping cream. Return the chicken to the skillet and turn to coat with the sauce and heat.

Serve the chicken ladled with sauce, then garnished with chopped fresh tarragon.

No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.
~Oscar Wilde

Celeriac (Apium graveolens rapaceum), also known as celery root, turnip-root celery or knob celery is a bulbous root vegetable related to anise, carrots, parsley and parsnips.

With a scruffy, knotted, almost warty outer surface, celeriac is surely considered by fashionistas as too unsightly and rotund to dare deign a designer grocery bag. And overly soiled for those freshly manicured fingers. Once peeled though, celery root’s creamy, firm white flesh resembles that of a turnip and has a subtle woodsy blend of celery and parsley. Too often shunned outside Europe, celeriac is eaten raw, fried, sautéed, blanched, and in gratins and soups.  When buying, the full, globular root should be firm with no brown soft spots, and the sprouting tops should be bright green.

While I adore the local marchés en plein airboulangeries, boucheries, fromageries, pâtisseries, and épiceries in a classic French market to kitchen progression, charcuteries make me weak-kneed.  Derived from chair cuite which means “cooked flesh,” charcuteries display daily gastronomic divinities such as saucissons, merguez, boudin noirs, jambons, pâtés, terrines, rillettes, confits, white asparagus, haricots verts, and so on…just an affluence of salted, smoked, cured meats and poultry. Edenic.  Never to be overlooked at any charcuterie is the ever present céleri rémoulade, an earthy, crunchy salad composed of julienned celery root dressed in a mustardy mayonnaise. It may be old school, but céleri rémoulade still really grooves.

Because the peeled and julienned celeriac tends to discolor, it is best to prepare the dressing before you cut into the root.

CELERIAC REMOULADE

2 lbs celery root (celeriac)

1 C mayonnaise, homemade* or prepared
1/4 C crème fraîche or whole milk plain yogurt
1 T Dijon mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 T freshly squeezed lemon juice or white wine vinegar
1/4 C capers, rinsed and drained (optional)

Brush excess dirt off of the roots. Cut off the bottom and top of the roots, peel and then cut into quarters. Rinse in cool water if there is any remaining dirt or debris. Slice each quarter on a mandoline or grater into thick wooden matchsticks, so they retain their crunch once dressed. You might want to julienne by hand, with a sharp knife.

Mix together the mayonnaise, mustard, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and capers. Toss the julienned celery root with the dressing and season further to your liking. If the salad is too thick, then add some more crème fraîche or yogurt.

*Mayonnaise

4 large 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, and 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.

The Whole Enchilada

October 5, 2009

If God dwells inside us like some people say, I sure hope He likes enchiladas, because that’s what He’s getting.
~Jack Handy

Keeping in line with the Mexican theme—a cuisine seemingly and sometimes sadly overlooked. To outrightly dismiss, bastardize or usurp a sacrosanct ethnic gastronomy is troubling and almost a form of cultural cleansing. Entiende, comprende Taco Bell?

The word enchilada which loosely comes from the Spanish enchilar meaning “donned in chile.” Do not be fooled by the unadorned nomenclature as it belies this beloved, piquant fare, so despite misconceptions, one classic fine dining experience awaits me.

CHICKEN ENCHILADAS

2 28-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes, drained
2 poblano chiles, stemmed
2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed

2 T canola oil
1 medium white onion, peeled and chopped
2 C chicken broth
Sea salt
3/4 C crema or crème fraîche*
2-3 C grilled or roasted chicken dark meat, coarsely shredded
1 C asadero, chihuahua and/or monterey jack cheese, grated

12 corn tortillas
Canola oil, for brushing

Radishes, thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Queso fresco, crumbled

Preheat oven to 375 F

In a heavy skillet, dry roast the chiles over medium heat, turning occasionally, until soft and blackened, about 5-7 minutes. Place in a blender or food processor along with the drained canned tomatoes. Blend to a smooth purée.

In a heavy bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring regularly, until translucent but before fully caramelized, about 7-9 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high, and stir in the tomato purée. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened to a smooth paste, about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the broth, and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste and season with a pinch or so of salt. The sauce should be like a thick cream soup in consistency.

Stir the crema or crème fraiche into the sauce. Put the chicken in a bowl and stir 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce mixture into it. Season to taste with salt.

Lay the tortillas out on a baking sheet or two, and lightly brush both sides of the tortillas with oil. Bake just to warm through and soften, about 3 minutes. Stack the tortillas and cover with a towel to keep warm.

Spread about 1 cup of the sauce over the bottom of a 13″ x 9″ baking dish. Lay some chicken filling into each tortilla, and then quickly yet gently roll each one up with your fingers. Arrange them in the baking dish in line, seam side down. Ladle evenly with more sauce, then sprinkle with the melting cheese. Allow the ends of the tortillas to be free of sauce. Slip in the oven and bake until the enchiladas are hot and the cheese just browned, about 10-15 minutes. Garnish with radish slices, cilantro, and queso fresco.

Serve promptly as enchiladas tend to turn mushy with time.

*Crème Fraîche

2 C heavy whipping cream
1/4 C buttermilk

In a medium heavy saucepan over low heat, warm the cream, but do not simmer or boil. Remove from heat and stir in the buttermilk. Transfer the to a medium bowl and allow to stand covered with plastic wrap until thickened but still of pouring consistency. Stir every 6 hours for one day. The crème fraîche is ready when it is thick with a slightly nutty sour taste. Chill in the refrigerator for several hours before using. Crème fraîche may be made and stored in a jar the refrigerator for up to one week.

Nightmarish triplets no doubt conceived by Food Networkpesto, quiche, then crab cakes.

CRAB CAKES WITH CITRUS BEURRE NANTAIS

2 lbs high quality crabmeat (Maryland, Peekytoe, Dungeness)

2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small to medium red onion, peeled and finely diced
2 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely diced
1-2 jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and finely diced

2 large eggs
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1 t paprika
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
3 T Dijon mustard
1/4 C crème fraîche or sour cream
2+ T all purpose flour, sifted
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T unsalted butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil

Place the crabmeat in a strainer to remove any excess liquid. Allow to drain for several minutes, then transfer the crabmeat to a large bowl. Pick over the crabmeat to remove any bits of shell and cartilage, being careful not to break up the lumps of crab.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium high and cook the onion, garlic and jalapeños until the onion is softened and translucent. Transfer to bowl, set aside, and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together first the eggs, then Worcestershire, paprika, cayenne, mustard, and crème fraîche until well combined. Then, stir in the cooled onion mixture. Add the crabmeat, and 2 tablespoons of the flour, gently fold to combine, and season with salt and pepper. If the mixture appears too wet, loose and liquid like, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time. Refrigerate, covered for at least 2 hours, even overnight.

Divide the chilled crab mixture into 8 patties about 1/2-inch thick.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large, heavy nonstick pan over medium high heat and sauté the cakes until crusty and lightly browned, about 3 minutes per side.

CITRUS BEURRE NANTAIS

1 C dry Riesling, Vouvray, or Sancerre wine
2 T lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 T ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 C heavy whipping cream

1/2 T sugar
1/4 C fresh grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 C lime juice, freshly squeezed

12 T unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), chilled and cut into small cubes.
Sea salt, to taste
White pepper, to taste

In a sauce pan, combine the wine, lemon juice, and ginger. Reduce until about approximately 3 tablespoons of liquid remains. Add the heavy cream and gently reduce by half.

Meanwhile, in a separate sauce pan, reduce the sugar, grapefruit juice, and lime juice together until thick and syrupy. Whisk into the reduced cream mixture.

With a wire whisk or an immersion blender, purée the “sauce” while slowly adding the butter a few cubes at a time until all of the butter is incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper and drizzle over crab cakes.

Fear always springs from ignorance.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Enough already Sarah. She has gone from that Armani adorned, always ingénue and sometimes buffoonish, vice presidential candidate to now become the self anointed Delphic Oracle of conservatism. The former governor seems to envision her “new life” bespectacled, clad in khaki and jodfers, rough riding over Capitol Hill while spouting uninformed rhetoric on Twitter and Facebook.

On a recent Facebook page, Mrs. Palin entered this patently absurd comment:

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Her harangue was at best, ignorance followed by paranoic rant—and at worst, an outright, mean-spirited lie. In typical fear mongering fashion, Mrs. Palin baselessly asserted that the health care plan proposed before Congress contains a provision providing for bureaucratic death squads to kill off the less productive members of society. Nowhere in any proposed health care legislation is there any such language, notion or innuendo. She should recant her outlandish misrepresentations which were aimed at poisoning a remedial bill meant to serve our citizens’ health care and well-being—seemingly for the selfish purpose of enhancing her political base. Don’t hold your breath because to some “never disavow, never apologize, never explain” is a lifelong mantra.

Some advice, Sarah: first read and comprehend, then attempt to grasp the issues, and finally talk openly (rationally and with proper use of your cradle language). Then, maybe we can have vigorous, informed and civil debate that addresses the true issues at hand.

As Ronald Reagan, Jr., wryly remarked, “Sarah Palin only needs a red rubber nose and some exploding shoes and she could go work for Barnum and Bailey. The fact that we give this clown any time at all is shocking and silly and a little bit stupid.”

A footnote—Urban Dictionary now has an entry for “Palinize”: To smear or mock someone using falsehoods, baseless accusations or unsubstantiated character assassinations for the purpose of blocking them from achieving a goal; to exaggerate the truth or lie by omission.

Now, back to something we know has substance and true essence.

This spring/summer soup, with its stunning range of deeply crimson to cerise to magenta red hues and earthy flavors, can be served warm or chilled.

BEET SOUP

3-4 medium red beets, roasted
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

1 T butter
1 leek (white and pale green parts), cleaned well and chopped
1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/8 t ground ginger

2 cups chicken stock
2 T red wine vinegar
1 small bay leaf
1 fresh thyme sprig
1 fresh parsley sprig

1/4 C whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2-3 T crème fraîche or sour cream
Dill fronds, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and lightly splash them with olive oil, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes to one hour, depending on the size of the beets. Cool, then peel beets. Cut 1/4 of one beet into 1/3″ cubes, and reserve for garnish. Cut remaining beets into 1/2″ pieces for use in the body of the soup.

Melt butter with oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium high heat. Add leek, onion, and celery and cook until beginning to brown, stirring frequently, about 12 minutes. Stir in ginger, salt and pepper, and beet pieces. Cook until vegetables begin to stick to bottom of pot, stirring gently and frequently, about 7 minutes. Add chicken stock, red wine vinegar, bay leaf, thyme sprig, and parsley sprig. Bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 25 minutes. Remove bay leaf, thyme sprig, and parsley sprig and discard. Allow soup to cool slightly. Working in batches, purée soup by pulsing in food processor with cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Return to saucepan and reheat. Divide soup between bowls, adding reserved beet cubes. Garnish each bowl with a swirl of crème fraîche and dill fronds.

SCALLOP PANCAKES, CREME FRAICHE & CAVIAR

1/4 lb. scallops, chopped
1 T fresh chives, minced

2 large organic, free range eggs
1/2 C all purpose flour
1/4 t baking powder
1/2 C club soda
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper

2 T peanut oil

Fresh chives, sliced lengthwise
Crème fraîche
Caviar or salmon roe

Whisk eggs in medium bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, club soda, salt, and pepper and stir until a batter forms. Stir in the scallops and chives.

Heat enough peanut oil to cover a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Spoon enough batter into the pan to form a 3-4″ diameter pancakes. Cook until lightly browned and then turn and cook the other side.

Serve garnished with a dollop of crème fraîche, a spoonful of caviar and chives; or serve or over a fresh frisée salad which has been tossed with a champagne vinaigrette.

CREME FRAICHE

2 C heavy whipping cream
4 T buttermilk

In a medium heavy saucepan over low heat, warm the cream, but do not simmer or boil. Remove from heat and stir in the buttermilk. Transfer the to a large bowl and allow to stand covered with plastic wrap until thickened but still of pouring consistency. Stir every 6 hours for one day. The crème fraîche is ready when it is thick with a slightly nutty sour taste. Chill in the refrigerator for several hours before using. Crème fraîche may be made and stored in a jar the refrigerator for up to one week.