We all like chicken.
~Malcolm X

Shortly after my fetching daughter’s glorious wedding in a mountain field, I felt compelled to write about rabbit cacciatore (July 24, 2013).

Today’s cacciatore recipe goes to show (as with coq au vin) just how many myriad versions exist of this rustic braise, so many of which are luscious. Really, what are “authentic” kitchens and “classic” recipes anyways — especially when your lands or regions have been invaded, conquered, occupied or colonized by other culture(s) over time?

For instance, tomatoes (pommodori) are often traced from origins in Peru, where they were domesticated by the Mayans and later cultivated by the Incas. These divine fruits likely entered Europe by way of Spain, after conquistador Hernán Cortés‘ early 16th century conquest of the flourishing Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlán, on a swampy island on the coast of Lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico. When these globular red (often yellow) berries arrived on Italian shores, they were strictly a curiosity for those who merely studied or ruminated about plants, but not anything anyone would ever consider eating. Tomatls (an Aztec term) were considered “strange and horrible things” — aberrant mutants, even feared as poisonous. It was not until later that tomatoes finally were embraced in Italy as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples.” Imported tomatoes assimilated easily to the Mediterranean rim climate and finally became a vital part of Italian cuisine in the 17th & 18th centuries and beyond — over two millennia after they were first domesticated in South and Mesoamerica. The sometimes tortured path of food.

The notion of pollo alla cacciatore seems a rather amusing take on hunters who utterly fail to nab anything while pocketing hearty fare from home. Gentle souls, they must be.

And yes, Malcolm, chicken is unforgettably irresistible.

CHICKEN CACCIATORE (POLLO ALLA CACCIATORE)

4-5 leg thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped
2 C all purpose flour

1 1/2 lbs heirloom tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
2 T extra virgin olive oil

3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t rosemary leaves, chopped
1 t oregano leaves, chopped
1 T fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Sea salt

1/2 C dry red wine
1 C chicken broth
2 T apple cider vinegar
1 14 1/2 oz canned tomatoes in juice, diced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 C crimini and/or shittake mushrooms, trimmed and thickly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Rosemary sprigs, for serving
1/2 C basil, ribboned, for serving
2-3 T capers, drained, for serving

Penne, rice, risotto or other pastas, cooked according to instructions

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium high in a large, heavy skillet until shimmering. Meanwhile, season the chicken with rosemary, salt and pepper and then dredge in flour, shaking off excess, so the leg-thighs are just slightly coated. Brown, in batches if necessary, for about 4-5 minutes on each side. Transfer the chicken pieces to a bowl as they are done and loosely tent. Discard the olive oil and chicken fat from the pan.

Next, turn to a Dutch oven, place on medium heat, add the 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and the onion, heirloom tomatoes, and carrot, as well as a pinch of sea salt. Cook and stir, until the vegetables just begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, oregano, parsley and sea salt to taste. Cover, turn the heat to medium low and cook, stirring often, until the mixture is barely soft and the garlic not brown.

Turn the heat back up to medium, stir in the mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook while stirring, until the mushrooms are just tender.

Stir in the wine, vinegar and stock and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, until the wine-vinegar-stock mix has reduced by about a third. Add the canned tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have cooked down.

Return the chicken pieces to the pan, so they are well submerged in the tomato mixture. Cover and braise over medium heat for about 30 minutes, until the juices run pale yellow from the chicken.

Place pasta, rice or a simple risotto in large shallow bowls and place over a chicken quarter and ladle with sauce. Strew the rosemary sprigs, chiffonaded basil, and capers over the top and serve with a Sangiovese.

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Mushroom Broth (Stock)

August 18, 2011

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The debate over broth vs. stock. Why has this always been so perplexing, even amusing?

Broth derives from the Old English noun broþ, having trickled down from an Indo-European verb root bhreu- or bhru- (“to heat, boil, bubble”), which also produced the word “brew.” So, etymylogically speaking, the noun broth means “liquid in which something has been boiled.”

The Germanic form brotham was borrowed into vulgar Latin as brodo, which by way of Old French broez came into 13th century English as broys or browes.

Stock presents a tad more complicated root scenario given its varied definitions and uses (inventory, corporate stock, summer stock, livestock, paper stock, stock remark, etc.). The word originally denoted a “tree trunk,” coming from the Germanic stukkaz. Stock, as used in the sense of broth, was so coined in the mid 18th century, because one keeps a “stock” of “broth” on hand in the stockpot.

Etymylogically, they seem nearly interchangeable. But, many chefs may dispute this, contending that stock is produced by slowly simmering relatively unseasoned bones and cartilage, some meat scraps, vegetables and aromatics in order to extract their essences. Often, the collagen rich bones are first oven roasted with the vegetables, and then added to the water to further enhance colors and flavors. This gelatinous, rich, and viscous stock is then strained and later used as a base to build sauces, gravies, soups or braises. Broth, on the other hand, they claim is crafted with whole meat morsels, is more delicate by nature and refers to an already finished and seasoned product. So, although not necessary broth can be made of stock.

Add to this semantic cauldron culinary terms like bouillon, court bouillon and consommé and mayhem ensues.

The distinction between vegetable stock and broth seems neglible. As for mushroom broth, made from those noble fungi taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants and animals and more genetically related to animals than plants…a vegan conundrum?

MUSHROOM BROTH

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 1/2 C large mushroom stems (e.g., portabella), cleaned and sliced lengthwise
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 C dry white wine
1 T shoyu
1 C dried mushrooms, such as porcini and/or shiitake
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 t dried herbes de Provence
3 sprigs fresh thyme
8 whole black peppercorns
3 C water
3 C vegetable stock

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Add the mushrooms, stems, onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine, shoyu, dried mushrooms, salt, dried herbs, thyme, peppercorns, water and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to moderate and simmer until the liquid is reduced about one half, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Pour the hot broth through a fine strainer into a large bowl. Strain a second time for good measure.

Store broth in the fridge for up to four days, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Gratin Dauphinois Revived

March 21, 2011

Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.
~Victor Hugo

They say spring sprang yesterday.

Equinox is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The vernal equinox officially occurs when the center of the sun crosses the equator. But, be not dissuaded by the tale that on the vernal equinox the length of day is exactly equal to the length of night. Daytime to nighttime equality actually falls before the vernal equinox and likewise after the autumnal equinox.

For most venues on earth, there are two distinct days per year when the length of day and night are closest to being equal; those days are referred to as equiluxes, not to be confused with equinoxes. In a nutshell, equinoxes are points in time, but equiluxes are full days. An equinox happens each year at two precise moments in time—rather than two whole days—when there is a location on the earth’s equator and the center of the sun is observed vertically overhead.

To complicate matters, the earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight when approaching the horizon, so the sun appears to be above the horizon a few minutes earlier than actuality. Therefore, on the vernal equinox, the daylight hours are actually longer than the length of time between when the sun crosses the horizon at dawn and when the sun crosses the horizon at sunset. Those factors all combine to make the day of the equinox not the day when we have twelve hours each of light and darkness.

The vernal equinox also brings spring leeks to mind. Always, maybe too often, thinking food. Those sweet, green and white alliums that are planted in the fall and left in the frigid soil until the first thaw. Because farmers usually mound soil and mulch over leeks to protect them against cold temperatures, they tend to be grittier than their summer cousins. So, take care to clean them assiduously. Trim the roots, peel away the translucent outer layers and slice the leeks in half lengthwise. Wash well under cold running water.

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS WITH MUSHROOMS & LEEKS

1 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Butter, unsalted

2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, then sliced thinly crosswise
8 oz crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 T unsalted butter, divided
2 t dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs baking potatoes, preferably russets, peeled and very thinly sliced

2+ C grated gruyère cheese
1+ C heavy cream

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 F

Melt butter 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced leeks, thyme, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and golden, about 5-7 minutes. Set leeks aside in a bowl. Wipe skillet with a paper towel.

Melt an additional 2 tablespoons butter in the same skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced mushrooms, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are tender, about 8 minutes. Set mushrooms aside in a bowl.

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin/baking dish with a crushed garlic clove, and then lightly butter the dish with the end of a stick of butter. Arrange one half of the sliced potatoes slightly overlapped in a single layer. Strew cooked leeks and mushrooms over the potatoes. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add a second layer of potatoes with cheese, cream and season again with salt and pepper. Lightly grate some fresh nutmeg on the top layer to finish.

Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until crisp and golden, about 1 hour. Should the top begin to brown too rapidly, simply cover with aluminum foil. Remove from oven, let rest for at least 10 minutes, and then serve.

Fried Sage Leaves

December 1, 2009

Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage.
~Publilius Syrus

Fried sage. Rings like that series of ads in the late ’80s that depicted a sizzling fried egg and droned on: “this is your brain on drugs.”

This post seems simple to the point of naive, but the uses for fried sage are manifold and often forgotten: gracing appetizers…adorning pastas, rice, risotto, polenta, gnocchi, pizza, soups, fish, meats, poultry. They possess a fine textural finish. To me, even naked in a bowl as chip-like finger food is heaven enough.

FRIED SAGE

Extra virgin olive oil, for frying
30 or so whole sage leaves, cleaned and patted dry
Sea salt

Heat about 1″ of olive oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium high heat, and when small drops of water sizzle when sprinkled into the oil, add half the sage leaves (to assure decent spacing) and fry until just crisped, about 10-15 seconds. Gently remove them to paper towels to drain with a spider or slotted spoon. Do not let the leaves turn a deep brown. Fry the remaining sage leaves and sprinkle them all lightly with salt. They will crisp as they cool.

Pourboire: another version of fried sage entails first dipping them in whisked eggs, then lightly coating them in flour, shaking off the excess. Follow the remainder of the recipe.

FETTUCINE WITH MUSHROOMS, SAUSAGE & FRIED SAGE

24-30 fried sage leaves (see above)

2 C crimini mushrooms, roughly cut in thirds
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter

4 fine Italian sausages
Water and chicken stock
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 lb. fettuccine
Water
Sea salt

1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Parmigiano-reggiano, grated

In a heavy skillet, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil and butter until just softened. Set aside in a bowl.

In a different pan, simmer the sausages in equal parts of stock and water, covered, for about 10 minutes. Turn the sausages a few times. Remove them from the pan and allow to cool.

Slice the poached sausages into 1″+ chunks and sauté them in the oil until browned, adding the garlic toward the end so that it turns golden but not burned. Discard the garlic, remove the sausage from the pan and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring water to a boil and salt generously. Then, cook the fettucine until al dente. Drain in a colander.

Pour off the fat from the skillet. Add the cream and bring to a boil, scrape up cooking bits, and return the mushrooms and sausage to heat through. Toss in the fettucine to coat, turning gently with tongs and season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Serve in bowls sprinkled with grated parmigiano-reggiano and fried sage leaves.

Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within.
~Franz Kafka

Often, the divine derives from the decomposed. At least so say most funeral directors.

(You are aware that Dexter was preceded by decades—over a century ago—by Franz Kafka, right?)

Fungi are members of a group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts, molds and my beloved mushrooms. Eukaryotic, you say? Derived from the Greek for “noble” or “true” combined with “nut” (an intriguing match), eukaryotes are organisms whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes. A single eukaryotic cell contains membranous compartments in which specific metabolic activities take place.

Decomposers that feed on the remains of dead plants and animals, fungi are taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants, animals, protists and bacteria. Not green for lack of chlorophyll, they have cell walls that contain chitin, unlike the cell walls of plants, which are composed of cellulose.

From a genetic view, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Animals and fungi share a common evolutionary history, and the limbs of their genealogical tree branched away from plants over one billion years ago. The common ancestor of animals and fungi actually was a protist—a single celled creature that very likely possessed both animal and fungal characteristics. It is surmised that this precursor spent part of its early life cycle in a membranous and mobile form resembling a human sperm, and then morphing into its next stage by growing a stiff chitin cell wall more resembling the mushroom that graces our tables.

All murk aside, this is a silky, luxuriant soup worthy of your spoon. If you opt for a more meaty, handsome texture, simply omit the blending stage and keep the mushrooms sliced.

CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP

1 ounce dried mushrooms (porcini, morels, or shitakes)
1 C chicken or vegetable stock, heated

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter

1/2 C shallots, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 T fresh thyme, finally minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/2 lb shitake mushrooms cleaned, stemmed and sliced
1/2 lb oyster mushroomes, cleaned, stemmed and sliced

1/4 C Madeira
1/4 C all purpose flour

5 C chicken or vegetable stock
1-2 C heavy cream

Chives
Truffle oil

Soak the dry mushrooms in 1 cup of warm stock about 30 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve, along with the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed.

Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and then add the shallots, garlic, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes, until the shallots are soft and translucent but not browned.

Turn heat to medium high and add the sliced mushrooms, thyme, bay leaves and sage. Cook mushrooms to exude liquid until they become quite soft, about for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add Madeira and flour and stir constantly for around 5 minutes.

Add the chicken stock and the dried mushrooms along with the soaking water. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove the herbs, then add the cream and working in batches, puree the soup in a food processor or an immersion blender until smooth. Return to the pot and keep at a very low simmer until ready to serve.

Garnish with chives and drizzle lightly with truffle oil.

Blogging affords me an opening to share one of my most revered delicacies—a source of rapture since childhood. These opulent nuggets have a soft, delicate texture and an incomparable subtle flavor which borders on creamy.

Sweetbreads do not deserve the miscreant label often bestowed upon other carrion simply because they were originally poor man’s food retrieved from the butcher’s floor. Rather, sweetbreads have attained a lofty station in the world of fine cuisine (as if caste really counts). Anyway, consider how we so heedlessly discard choice innards and reserve only the loin, ribs, etc. It is not only openly wasteful, it dishonors the noble animal—we need to butcher and eat nose to tail.

Sweetbreads are glands located in the chest, throat and stomach area of young calves, lambs or pigs. There are two differing glands which fall under the overall rubric of sweetbreads—the thymus and the pancreas. The thymus gland is located in the young animal’s neck and is primarily responsible for excreting protective t-cells as part of the immune system. Thymus sweetbreads are more irregular in shape than pancreas sweetbreads, and are also considered to be less complex in flavor.

The pancreas variety of sweetbreads is located near the stomach, producing insulin and other digestive enzymes. Pancreas sweetbreads are generally larger and rounder in shape than their thymus brothers. Of the two, the pancreas sweetbreads of young calves (the classic ris de veau) are more heavily prized.

When buying, sweetbreads should be white or slightly pink in color, as the redder the hue, the older the animal.

Why is this victual delicacy called “sweetbreads?” Some linguists date the term back to the late 1500s, suggesting that the word “bread” was used interchangeably with the word “morsel”…and what incomparable sweet morsels they are.

“STANDARD” SWEETBREAD PREP

Sweetbreads
Sea salt
Water (or whole milk) to cover
Bay leaf
5 peppercorns
4 thyme sprigs
3/4 C white wine vinegar

Rinse sweetbreads well. Soak them for a couple of hours in the fridge in a covered bowl of cold water, changing the water at least once; drain. Bring a heavy pot of salted water (or milk), bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme and wine vinegar to a boil, and add the sweetbreads. Reduce heat and simmer gently 5 minutes. Drain sweetbreads in a colander discarding aromatics, then transfer to a bowl of ice and cold water to cool and halt the cooking process. Remove and pat dry with paper towels. Remove any excess fat, membrane and cartilage (often not much) and compress them between two towel lined plates or baking sheets. With a brick or light dumbbell, weight down the sweetbreads and put them in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours, covered.

Remove sweetbreads and proceed with your recipe of choice.

SWEETBREADS WITH MADEIRA & MUSHROOMS

1 1/2 lbs sweetbreads
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 t dried thyme
6 T olive oil (divided)
4 T unsalted butter (divided)
1/4 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1/4 lb fresh crimini mushrooms, sliced

2 shallots, peeled & thinly sliced

1 C Madeira
1 1/2 C chicken stock
1 C heavy whipping cream

Prep sweetbreads (see above)

Season sweetbreads with salt and pepper; set aside

In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil and butter over medium high heat.

Add mushrooms, season with salt, pepper and thyme and cook until slightly browned but still firm; set aside. Clean out skillet some with paper towels, and add more olive oil and butter. Add sweetbreads and saute until browned, about 3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside, loosely tented.

Add sliced shallots and cook about 2 minutes to sweat.

Deglaze skillet with a little Madeira, then add remainder of Madeira and reduce by half. Add stock, bring to a boil and reduce to 1 cup. Add cream, bring to a boil and cook sauce 3 minutes or until almost thickened; then add sweetbreads and mushrooms to finish the dish and thicken the sauce.

GRILLED SWEETBREADS

1 1/2 lb sweetbreads
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Prep sweetbreads (see above).

Soak woooden skewers in water for one or more hours.

Preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count to 3 seconds before the pain demands you retract (see On Grilling).

Separate sweetbreads into roughly 2″ pieces (about 20) using your fingers. Season with salt and pepper and then toss sweetbread pieces with oil in a bowl; thread onto skewers (about 5 pieces on each).

Grill sweetbreads, turning once, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes total. Transfer to a platter and let stand, loosely covered with foil, for 5 minutes.

BREADED SWEETBREADS WITH BACON & BEURRE NOISETTE

1 1/2 lbs sweetbreads
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

1/2 lb bacon or pancetta

2 organic, free range eggs, room temperature
2 T water
1 C flour
2 C fine fresh bread crumbs

1 C canola oil

6 T butter

Prep sweetbreads (see above)

Cut slices of bacon or pancetta into small pieces about 1 inch by 1/2 inch; saute in heavy skillet until crispy, then drain on paper towels; set aside.

Put the egg in a flat dish and add the water; beat to blend. Put the flour and bread crumbs in separate flat dishes or soup bowls.

Dip the sweetbread pieces first in flour, then in egg, then in bread crumbs. The sweetbreads should be thoroughly coated, but shake off excess. Pat the pieces all over to make the crumbs adhere.

Heat oil in a heavy skillet large enough to hold the pieces in one layer, but do not crowd. Cook on one side until golden. Turn and cook until golden on the other side. Cook, turning occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Heat the butter in a large, heavy skillet and cook, swirling it around, until foamy and starting to turn hazelnut brown. Remove from heat immediately and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle over sweetbreads and top with bacon or pancetta lardons.