Clowns & Chickpea Soup

January 20, 2012

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.
~Mark Twain

While on the folly of moral high grounders, just imagine that during one 24-hour spell: (1) a dropout governor and loser vice presidential candidate, who was woefully under scrutinized by her own party before “they” recklessly placing her on the ticket, ironically excoriated the country for electing the current president without properly vetting him; (2) in an embarrassing vote recount, a bigoted, right wing former senator was now declared the winner of a recent state caucus, reversing the previous results and defeating the party’s front running, perfectly coiffed mannequin candidate after all; (3) that same flip-flopping, scantily taxed, front running sycophant who has been warbling patriotic–even misinterpreting America The Beautiful–and touting good old fashioned homeland work values, has been surreptitiously shifting his funds to offshore tax havens; (4) a current governor with decidedly conservative, homophobic values has dropped out of the race and now endorsed another candidate, a former House Speaker who has repeatedly heralded the sanctity of established monogamous marriages; (5) while the second wife of this same pontificating Speaker gave a tell all interview where she revealed that this self-annointed high browed historian sought an “open marriage” with her all the while having a sordid affair with his now third wife; (6) then later that evening, the remaining pretenders suit and tied up to spew their pious demagogy onstage before raucous partisans at a national “debate.”

The stuff of statesmen and diplomats? Not even Twain or the esteemed dramatist Molière could have concocted such inane political satire. Makes me want to take a long shower, slip into some jammies, pop some popcorn, and tune into Fox “News” or CNN while humming And where are the clowns?…Send in the clowns.

Given yesterday’s lunacy and in honor of the ancient Roman orator, linguist and philosopher Cicero (from which ceci was derived), some velvety, soulful chickpea soup seemed in order. Often, solace can be found in legumes.

PASSATO DI CECI (TUSCAN CHICKPEA SOUP)

Extra virgin olive oil
1/4 lb pancetta, cut into 1/2″ lardons

1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Sea salt

1 lb (2 C) dried chickpeas, washed, then soaked in water overnight
2 qts chicken stock
4 sprigs fresh thyme, tied in twine
2 bay leaves
1 qt water

Extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs rosemary, stemmed with leaves finely chopped
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 1/2 C artisanal bread, crust on, cut into 1/2″ cubes

Extra virgin olive oil
Mint leaves, chopped

Lightly coat the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven with olive oil, add the pancetta and bring to medium heat. When the pancetta starts to become crispy, add the onion, celery, carrots, garlic, crushed red pepper and season lightly with salt. Cook the vegetables until they become aromatic and begin to soften, about 6-7 minutes. Do not brown.

Drain and discard the water from the soaked chickpeas, rinse them in a colander and add to the pot. Add the chicken stock, thyme, bay leaves and 1 quart of water. Bring the liquid just to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until the chickpeas are very soft and nearly falling apart, about 1 1/2-2 hours. Turn off the heat, season with salt and allow to rest for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, deeply coat a large skillet with olive oil, add garlic cloves, rosemary leaves, and crushed red pepper and bring to medium heat. Remove the garlic once it is golden and before it burns. Then add the cubed bread and cook until just crispy and golden. Season with salt and remove the croutons to a bowl for use later, reserving the garlic-rosemary oil.

Add the garlic-rosemary oil to the soup. Purée (in batches if necessary) the soup by pulsing in a food processor or blender. Correct the consistency, if necessary–if too thin, cook some more to reduce, or if too thick carefully add more stock. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls, drizzle very lightly with olive oil, then top with croutons and mint.

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Ave, Caesar!…Salad

February 23, 2009

It is better to create than to learn. Creating is the essence of life.
~Julius Caesar

While the Hollywood/Bollywood celebs indulgently hailed one another at the Oscars last night, we saluted a Caesar salad. Too long forgotten in the repertoire (as happens with some food denizens), it has made a hearty comeback in my kitchen. As with many culinary experiences, Caesar salad allows you to be simultaeously transported from World War I Italy to Tijuana, Mexico to star laden, prohibition era southern California.

Cesare Cardini was born near Lago Maggiore, Italy, in 1896, and emigrated to the states after World War I. He resided in San Diego but operated a restaurant in Caesar’s hotel located on the Avenida Revolución in Tijuana (in order to circumvent Prohibition). Purportedly, his renowned salad was created on a busy 4th of July weekend in 1924, and Hollywood celebrities soon flocked to the restaurant to sample his fare.

Caesar salad also began to make an appearance in western Europe courtesy of Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson (mistress and ultimately wife of Prince Edward VIII of Wales, former King of England). She partied in San Diego and Tijuana in the 20s, ultimately meeting the Prince of Wales at the Hotel Del Coronado. Mrs. Simpson occasionally visited Caesar’s venue, demanding that the maestro himself toss his creation at her table. Legend has it that Madame Simpson was the first to cut the lettuce into smaller pieces rather than indulging in the finger food Caesar had intended.

Caesar used only the romaine hearts, the tender short leaves in the center, and presented them whole. Initially, the salad was tossed and dressed at the table, then arranged on each plate so that you could dine on whole leaves with your fingers.  A wondrous fray of contrasts — salty, cold, crunch, heat, biting, croutons, fruit, cheese, egg.

CAESAR SALAD

20 crisp romaine lettuce hearts, washed and dryed
1 C toasted croutons

2 plump large garlic cloves, peeled
2 fine anchovy fillets in olive oil
1/4 C or more extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
1 large egg, coddled

Freshly ground black pepper
1 whole lemon, halved and seeded
Worcestershire sauce
3 T parmigiano-reggiano

Croutons: Cut bread slices up into small cubes. Crush the garlic cloves with the flat of a chef’s knife, sprinkle on 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and mince well. Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil on the garlic and mash again with the knife, rubbing and pressing to make a soft purée. If necessary, use a mortar and pestle to further mash your friends to a paste.

Scrape the purée into a heavy skillet, add another tablespoon of olive oil, and warm over low medium heat. Add the croutons and toss for a few minutes to crisp them, infuse them with the garlic oil, then remove from the heat.

Egg: To coddle the egg, bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer. Pierce the large end of the egg with a pushpin to prevent cracking, then gently lower into the water to avoid breakage and simmer for precisely 1 minute. You may wish to carefully put the eggs into ice water to retard further cooking.

Salad: Rub the wooden salad bowl well with the anchovy fillets. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the romaine leaves and toss to coat. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper, toss once or twice, then add the lemon juice, a few drops of the oil from the anchovies, the Worcestershire, and toss again. Taste for seasoning, and add more, if needed.

Crack the coddled egg and drop it right on the romaine leaves, then toss to break it up and coat the leaves. Sprinkle on the cheese, toss briefly, then add the croutons and toss for the last time, just to mix them into the salad.