You’re enough to try the patience of an oyster.
~Lewis Carroll

Since the early 17th century, the sometimes covert, yet prestigious l’Académie Française has been printing official dictionaries and regulating the French language which was not really unified until around World War I (1914-1918). Before the early 20th century tribal, provincial, and regional tongues and texts flourished in France. Recently, l’Académie proposed some spelling reforms (les réformes orthographes) by barring some uses of the beloved circumflex (accent circonflexe) sometimes dubbed “le petit chapeau” or Asian conical hat that adorns the top of certain French nouns and verbs.  Indicated by the sign ^, it is placed over a vowel or syllable, almost giving a poetic flair to the word, sentence, paragraph via pronouncement — even meaning (e.g., mûr “mature” mur “wall”).

These spelling changes were approved by the body in 1990 and then promptly forgotten or ignored.  Apparently, very few took notice then.

The notion was to generally ban circumflexes over the letters “i” and “u” (e.g., boite and brule) with some exceptions.   This linguistic move met with genuine public outrage, sober and sometimes furious discourse and even a popular movement called je suis circonflexe. One of the phrases often heard in the uproar was nivellement par le bas (“a dumbing down”) by removing the circumflex from certain letters.    The purist pressure mounted until l’Académie rendered its proposals for circumflex omissions optional.

The accent circonflexe is one of the five diacritical marks used in the French language and can also be seen in Turkish, Afrikaans, Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Portuguese, Swedish and Vietnamese writings.  The other four diacritics in French written script, besides l’accent circonflexe, are l’accent aigu (marché), l’accent grave (très), la cedille (garçon) and le tréma (aïoli).

Circumflexes are applied in the “nous” (we) and “vous” (you) passé simple (simple past) conjugations of all verbs, and in the “il” (he) conjugation of the imparfait subjonctif (subjunctive imperfect) of all verbs.  Over time, silent letters were also dropped so those lost souls (especially “s’s”) have a circumflex over the preceding vowel even though the missing letter reappears in some derivative words (e.g., forêt vs forestier).  Some 2,000 words utilize circumflexes in the French language (about 3% of the native lexicon).

Even though the school texts make the circumflex spelling changes discretional, it appears that le petit chapeau may still reign and will still sit atop such words (letters) among so many others:

âcre, âge, âme, apparaître, arrêt, bâtard, bâton, bête, bien-être , bientôt, brûlée, bûcher, château, connaître, côté, coût, crêpe, croître, croûte, dépêche, dîner, diplôme, disparaître, enchaîner, enchâsser, enquêter, être, extrême, faîte, fantôme, gâteau, gîte, goûter, hâte, honnête, hôpital, hôte, hôtel, huîtres, impôt, intérêt, jeûne, maître, mâture, même, mûr, nôtre, pâté, pâtissière, pêche, plutôt, poêle, prêt, prôse, prôtet, ragoût, reconnaître, rêves, rôti, symptômes, tâches, tantôt, tempête, tête, théâtre, traître, vêtements, vôtre, forêt, fraîche, fenêtre…

This is by no means a final adieu.  There is little doubt circumflexes will be imposed here — both are correct, n’est-ce pas (avec ou sans)?

OYSTERS ON THE GRILL WITH HERB BUTTER

16 T unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temperature or nearby
4 T fresh herbs, minced (tarragon leaves and stripped, cored fennel bulbs)
2 t lemon zest, freshly grated
2 T lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1-2 t cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 dozen (24 or so) fresh, “local” oysters

Place the softened butter and the remaining herbs, lemon and spices to a medium size bowl. Use a large spoon to cream (or place into a food processor fitted with a metal blade) the ingredients together until well blended. Serve immediately or preferably store in the frig.

If you save the butter for later — which likely should be done — wrap it up in plastic wrap in the shape of a log and refrigerate overnight until stiff. To use, just unwrap and slice discs from the chilled butter log and bring to room temperature on waxed or parchment paper.  Then, place on warm oysters and then re-grill briefly, as below.

Place the oysters on a medium high grill, flat side up.  (Remember to hold your open palm about 3″ above the hot grate, and medium high is reached when the pain demands you retract it in 2-3 seconds.)

Cover with hood and cook until they open, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the oysters to a platter, carefully keeping the liquor inside. Remove the top shells and loosen the oysters from the bottom shells. Top each oyster with a pad of compound butter and return the oysters in their bottoms to the grill. Again, cover the grill and cook until the butter is mostly melted and the oysters are hot, about 1 minute.

STEAMED OYSTERS WITH WHITE WINE & HERBS

2 dozen (24 or so) “local” oysters
Equal amounts of fish or chicken stock and water

1 C dry white wine
1/2 C tarragon leaves
1/2 C thyme leaves
2 t cayenne pepper

Bring water and stock to a boil in a heavy stock pot. Place oysters, wine and herbs in a steaming tray until done and shells start to open, about 3-5 minutes — quickly pull them off the heat and shuck.

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It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.
~André Gide

A brief obit on courtship.

One sad day, Dating, a longtime mate who has been fighting an insidious illness for a decade, quietly passed almost overnight. Her closest friends whispered that the cause was cancerous by nature. She had been a tireless advocate of couplings for centuries, merging innumerable sometimes seemingly mismatched relationships, many who went on to be life long partners and others who did not quite reach that supposed paradigm. She encouraged couples to address each other directly, to communicate face à face, and openly share interests and intimacies without codes, pretenses, online personas or flat screens. Dating would not have countenanced a couple strolling through the park, engaged only by their screens and not one another, texting whomever else about whatever. With Dating, sensuous trysts steeped in droll wit, mutual charm, eager eyes, seductive words, and even homey sociability were urged. Ever exploring one anothers’ minds and bodies, exalting each other’s uniqueness, while bearing blemishes and flaws over time, became the standards. That was soulful sychronicity in full bloom.

While not fully expected, others subverted the rules of courtship rather recently, sadly causing Dating’s descent and demise. The disease process spread more rapidly than expected. What with texting, e-mails, social media, smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, online dating sites, and instant messages, Dating stood little chance in her later years. Narcissitic texters, bizarre checklisters and flyspecking online data collectors, especially, would lead to her hastened departure. The now obsolete traditional dinner + movie was replaced by online liaisons, non-dates, hookups and hanging out in groups, small and large, sometimes known and more often unknown. Commitment free flings, screen only paramours, and ambiguous dalliances that leave both halves unhappy, sexually unfulfilled, and confused about intimacy have now become all too common. We lament that there were no simple solutions Dating could have offered nor that she could have proposed before her untimely end — other than to revert to the romantic days of yore. Without her, the courtship landscape may indeed prove bleak.

Oh, we will miss the furtive and lingering glances, flirtations, seductions, angst and joys of romance, madame Dating. So many of us still embrace you in your afterlife.

CHICKEN WITH DATES, FENNEL AND LEMON

4 chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ras al hanout
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter

1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, peeled and thinly sliced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Hefty pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
1 T ras el hanout
2 cinnamon sticks

2 preserved lemons
1+ C chicken broth

1 1/2 C pitted dates
2 t ground cinnamon
3 T honey

Sesame seeds, toasted
Cilantro leaves, chopped

Season chicken with ras al hanout, salt and pepper. In a large, heavy skillet add the olive oil and butter over medium high heat. Sauté the chicken until browned, about 5 minutes per side, and set aside in a baking dish tented with foil. Then, add the onions, fennel, garlic, saffron, ras al hanout, and cinnamon sticks. Cook over medium to medium high heat for about 8 minutes. Add the chicken broth and lemons and increase the heat just to bring the liquid to a gentle boil and then promptly lower to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is done and the sauce reduced some, about 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile place the dates, cinnamon and honey in a heavy saucepan. Stir gently to combine, then simmer over medium heat until the dates are tender and the sauce is syrupy, about 5-10 minutes.

Spoon the dates and syrup over the chicken and friends, and then garnish first with sesame seeds and then cilantro.

My mother never breast fed me. She told me she liked me as a friend.
~Rodney Dangerfield

Please consider that these words are uttered by an avowed chicken addict. While lamb, pork, beef, offal and friends often beckon in this kitchen, chicken invariably rules. However, boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be the bane of a cook’s existence. They are insipidly dry, tough, tasteless, often stringy and uninspiring — often sapping the very passion to cook. Yawners on a good day, a cook’s torment on others. One renowned chef questions whether these bland and skinned boring bosoms should even be considered a valid part of a chicken’s anatomy. So, a word to the wise: nestle up to succulent, dark meat like thighs, legs, backs, as they are ever sublime.

POLLO AL PIMENTON

4 chicken leg thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 T pimentón agridulce
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T duck fat
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 red pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced lengthwise
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced
1/2 medium fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced
1 T pimentón agridulce
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 C Spanish fino sherry
1/2 C chicken stock
2 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded and roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Splash of high quality sherry vinegar
1/4 C crème fraîche

Season the chicken with salt, pepper and pimentón. Heat the olive oil and duck fat with the smashed garlic cloves in a large, heavy sauté pan to medium high and brown the chicken, skin side down until browned, about 4-5 minutes. Turn and brown the other side for another 4-5 minutes. Remove chicken, tent with foil in a dish and drain off all but a tablespoon of the fat from the pan.

Lower the heat and add the red pepper, onion, fennel and pimentón. Cook until soft, but not browned, about 10-12 minutes, adding the garlic for the final minute. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and then add the stock, tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme. Season with salt and pepper and return the chicken to the skillet. Cover the pan, and cook, turning the chicken once or twice, until tender, about 25 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs.

Remove the chicken to a serving platter and tent with foil. Turn up the heat and boil liquids down to a sauce consistency, adding the sherry vinegar toward the end. Cook further for a couple of minutes, then reduce the heat to low, whisk in the crème fraîche until the sauce thickens, adjusting the seasonings to your liking. Plate, then ladle the sauce over the chicken and serve.

Beloved Slaw(s)

February 10, 2012

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed.
~Toni Morrison, Beloved

February is African American History Month, and the theme this year is “Black Women in American Culture and History,” honoring women who shaped the nation. Where to begin and to end? Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ruby Dee, Althea Gibson, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Rosa Parks, Leontyne Price, Angela Davis, Wilma Rudolph, Harriet Tubman, Alice Walker…and countless nameless, faceless sisters, mothers, cousins, daughters, aunts and grandmothers who steered, coddled and bettered their families and communities.

While all deserve deep praise, the eloquent and imaginative author, Toni Morrison, comes to my mind. The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner’s spellbinding stories are crafted with evocative prose that soars with poetic hues. Each of her novels are rich in character and unearth dense imagery. She is a writer’s writer whose works teem with passionate insight and vitality. Sula, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, A Mercy. And she reveres Paris, “a haven for the fastidious and ferocious and the smart,” and loves the “arrogance” of the city which also fostered a generation of post-colonial French-African thinkers.

While the term coleslaw derived from the Dutch koolsla, a shortening of koolsalade, which means “cabbage salad,” it has become a staple at barbeques and picnics across the states. Soulful slaw should be invited to the table more this month and later.

BEET & FENNEL SLAW

2 chioggia (candy-stripe) beets, peeled and julienned
2 yellow beets, peeled and julinned
1 medium carrot, peeled, julienned
1 small fennel bulb, cored and coarsely shredded
1 C napa cabbage, thinly sliced

Toss beets, carrot, fennel and cabbage in a large bowl. Add just enough dressing du jour to nicely coat, but not drench, the slaw. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.

Dressing I
2 T sugar
Sesame seeds or sliced almonds, toasted
1/2 C canola oil
2 T fresh lemon juice
3 T seasoned rice vinegar
1 T soy sauce
3 t sesame oil
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and minced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, sesame seeds, canola oil, lemon juice, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and ginger. Season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Dressing II
1/2 C plain Greek yogurt
2 t finely grated orange zest
6 T fresh orange juice
2 t fresh lemon juice
2 T finely chopped fresh dill

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together yogurt, zest, orange juice and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Dressing III
2/3 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1/4 C yellow onion, peeled and minced
3 T dill pickle, minced
2 T pickle juice
2 T white wine vinegar
1 T horseradish
1 T sugar
1/2 t celery seeds
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, onion, pickle, pickle juice, wine vinegar, horseradish, sugar and celery seeds. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pourboire: it should go without saying that a mix of traditional white and red cabbages with carrots is supreme.

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.

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.

Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.
~Mark Twain

Decision fatigue. That mental chisel which chips away at rational choice. The brain strain that afflicts both rich and poor, those slogging through work’s quagmire, agonizing at the mall or mired down at home. Different from what is typically perceived as physical fatigue, it takes an insidious toll on the brain. Researchers have noted that over time it depletes the mind’s energy, leading to erratic choices and dubious decisions. Faced with navigating a ceaseless influx of decisions upon decisions, many look for shortcuts and some begin to act impulsively while others resist change and do little. Even the mere act of resolving potential tradeoffs may prove cerebrally exhausting. Innovation and creativity often lag. Willpower wanes. Choosing threads, wheels, colors, fabrics, channels, deals, gadgets, abodes, mates and more…all can foster tired, vulnerable minds which is the paralytic price paid for our dizzying overabundance of options. Well, with the exception of partners which usually presents either arid or florid choices.

The human brain is a remarkably pliant organ, but it is not without limits. Much like a muscle, when it becomes depleted, the brain loses efficiency. But, unlike other body parts, the brain usually fails to appreciate when an onslaught of decisions renders it fatigued. As with depression and other mental disorders, the very organ that is supposed to protect against harm is the same organ which is disabled. The often unrecognized tired mind struggles to ascertain what to retain and what to disregard, often failing at both, and then rueful choices follow.

Decision fatigue even plagues home cooks pondering a simple meal. Such an array of options. What sounds most appealing? What to buy or what is even available at the markets? Should the meal be lavish or frugal? Are there compromises to consider? What app(s), entrée and sides should be served? What types of prep are most apt given the basic menu and timing issues? Whose palate must be placated? How should the meal be plated? Should any of the meal be served in courses or at once? What should be served to drink? Which wines pair better? Shall there be dessert, and if so, what? How should the table be set and the meal presented? What otherwise seems a banal task of serving food can be rife with uncertainty and tiresome indecision. Perhaps this is why many have a short list of favored meals.

Acute and chronic stress levels are reaching blight proportions. Not only does prolonged stress raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, increase the risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, it makes you one unpalatable mate. Researchers have even learned that chronic stressors can rewire the brain in ways that promote its presence. These sinister changes in the neural circuitry affect the regions of the brain associated with decisions and behavior. You tend to fall back on rote routine and eventually settle into bad habits. Executive decision-making skills are hampered.

Fortunately, stress induced changes to the brain are reversible, and pharmaceuticals are often not the answer. Solace can be found in the kitchen. Once embraced, cooking offers a change of pace and venue, soothing the angst and perturbations of the daily rut. Jangled nerves can be soothed. On a most basic level, it provides a creative outlet where raw, solitary ingredients are transformed into an amalgamation of scents, flavors, textures and hues. While stress numbs the senses, cooking activivates them. The cooking process has an almost measured field of action, a mission with a defined goal, and a finish with sensuous contentment.

Below is an embarassingly easy salad, soup, and sandwich trio to add to your decision tree. Relax, unwind, create and then savor. To narrow the matrices for the indecisive, the core ingredients remain fairly constant—fennel and fungi fervor with bright, fragrant tones of anise, sometimes citrus, and an underlying earthiness.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SALAD WTH CITRUS-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 C fine champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 C extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Parmigiano reggiano, thinly sliced into curls

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, orange zest, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream until it emulsifies. Set aside.

Cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb so as to remove the fingers. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a knife.

Slice the bulb very thinly into rings. Add mushroom slices and gently toss with a light coating of the champagne-orange vinaigrette. Sparsely finish with a few parmigiano reggiano curls.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SOUP

4 T unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and chopped
1 t fennel seeds, toasted and ground
8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed

4 C mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/2 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter until hot and foaming, but not browning. Add the fennel and toasted fennel seeds, then sauté over moderate until just softened, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushrooms, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, turn to high until it just reaches a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Pour into a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée in pulses until smooth.

Pour the puréed soup into a large heavy saucepan, add the cream, and gently reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking. Ladle into shallow soup bowls and strew with tarragon ribbons.

FENNEL, MUSHROOM & PROSCUITTO PANINI

1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and thinly sliced, almost shaved
4 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 oz proscuitto, very thinly sliced
4 oz taleggio or fontina cheese, sliced

Artisan bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill sparingly with fennel, mushrooms, proscuitto and top with some taleggio. The bread should be the star.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight(s) on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. It should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing cheese.

Pourboire: foods known to reduce stress include asparagus, avocado, berries, beef, cottage cheese, fish, milk, nuts, oranges, pasta, rice, whole grain breakfast cereals and breads, raw vegetables, cooked spinach, tea, and dark chocolate. Some foods are chocked with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B-6 and B-12 while others increase magnesium, folic acid, calcium and serotonin levels. These foods also counteract cortisol & epinephrine, the so-called “stress hormones” secreted by the adrenal glands.