All sorrows are less with bread.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

This late summer and early fall mark the centenary dawn (1914-2014) of The War To End All Wars. Well done, humanity — as a species, we have been in global conflict and slaughter almost continuously since then.  Strife upon strife.

So, perhaps a few words about French grub on or near the front lines during The Great War are in order.  Much like with latrines and other necessities, les générals and les officiers (generals and officers) always fared far better than les poilus and les soldats (infantrymen and soldiers).  Fine cognac and haute cuisine in opulent estates away from the Front prevailed for generals, while pinard or plonk  (a cheap, low class wine) and often inedible or even missing rations were issued to the regulars who daily lost their limbs, minds, and lives on the Front.

Some background is deserved. Early on, both sides dug a network of trenches on the Western Front that eventually extended for nearly 500 miles each from the North Sea to Switzerland. Each side dug labyrinthine lines of zig-zagging trenches for some 24,000 miles (nearly the circumference of the earth).  As few expected the war to last past Christmas, the first trenches were hurriedly made scrapes and shallow pits in the ground — mere hollows dug by soldiers to protect themselves from the rain of metal from the sky, machine gun barrages and incessant snipers. These hastily constructed defenses often flooded and folded. When the front line later stabilized, trenches became deeper and were more elaborately constructed shelters, which became the troops’ home away from home, often far, far away.  The conditions in soggy trenches remained deplorable with rampant cases of dysentary, trench foot, trench mouth, diseases, hunger, rats, vermin, and body lice mingling with the horrific stench of diseases, decaying bodies, open wounds, human filth and open sewage. The trench reek alone made it difficult for many to even eat.

Because France’s armed forces expanded dramatically from peacetime to the onset of war, the Ministry of War undertook a staggering juggling act to feed the troops. While relying upon a loosely drawn network of foreign suppliers, limited local production, and meager tithes from abroad, the French not only provided for their own troops, but for some allies, colonials, and foreign volunteers.

Among other things, French troops were provided at basic training with a bidon (canteen), musette (haversack), gamelle (mess kit), quart and utensiles (cup and utensils). The soldiers usually received two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. While there was no standard time for when the meals were scheduled while afield, breakfast (PDDMPetit Déjeuner Du Matin) was usually served around 8 or 9 am, with coffee or wine sometimes served a tad beforehand. Dinner normally was served sometime in the early evening depending on the day’s conflict. Sometimes, both meals were received in the morning, with half slipped into mess kits as reserves for later. Of course, conditions at the Front sometimes prohibited meals from either being prepared or even delivered to the men. It was not uncommon for a soldier to exhaust his reserves, in which case he simply went without until food supplies were replenished from the rear. Front line troops had to subsist on bread, fruit, wine and sausages. Sometimes, troops survived on some form of soup or stew (la soupe or rata), a morcel of greasy meat, hard dry biscuits, and perhaps a cup of coffee.

Major mess kitchens were set up near supply railheads and other rear echelon trappings, such as hospital posts, rest camps and training areas. Soldiers who were line infantrymen might also be cooks or food laborers, with fatigue details assigned on a rotating basis. The concept of mobile field kitchens ensued with meals prepared behind the lines, which would then be hauled to the trenches in large food transport tins with carrying frames similar to backpacks. These kitchens were dubbed roulantes (“rollers”), and they rendered certain camping implements superfluous. Stationed in the rear or in support or supply lines, rollers were staffed by cuistots (“cooks”) who stayed with the kitchens to prepare the meals.

Though the food was prepared in field kitchens, the task of transporting food to the Front fell to fatigue men quasi-organized into ration parties. Variously called cuistots, ravitailleurs or hommes-soupes, they brought up the rations on their backs to their waiting comrades. Bedecked with stew pots, mess pans, canvas buckets, sacks, loaves of bread and dozens of filled canteens, the ration parties would usually depart during the night to ensure enough time for them to return by morning. Cooked food was placed in Bouthéon stew pots, a label morphed to bouteillon (“bottle”) due to pronunciation proximity. A large camp mess pan called the plat-á-quatre (“plate for four”) could also be used to carry food to the Front. Loaves of bread were carried either by stringing the loaves together with twine to make a bandolier or by impaling them onto a stake and hoisting them over a shoulder (see above). Canned foods were carried either in haversacks or large canvas distribution sacks. Though the food was hot when it was in the rear, by the time it arrived at the front it had already turned lukewarm or usually cold. The beverages, such as pinard, coffee and water were brought up in individual canteens as well as in the bouteillons or canvas buckets. Not only were these journeys tedious, the hommes-soupes details were often considered more hazardous than combat, as ground covered by enemy artillery fire and machine guns had to be traversed while adroitly carrying bulky equipment making it difficult to seek cover.

Food that arrived at the Front was generally chilly, of dubious nutritional quality, often soiled, sometimes spoiled, usually overcooked, greasy, and nearly inedible. Bread was usually carried without wrappers, coffee (le jus), pinard, and soups or stews with beans or potatoes were transported in open cans and the like. The overall quality and invariance of diet was a constant source of complaint among soldiers. Fine dining it was not, far from a beatific merger with “the All.”  Most troops would have been flatly elated at a deep platter of warm cassoulet — a rustic, one-pot meal from southwestern France.  Afterwards, death would be more embraceable.

CASSOULET AU CANARD

1 lb. dried white beans, such as tarbais, Great Northern, or cannellini, soaked overnight and drained
4 oz slab bacon, cut into 4 pieces
12 or so C water

4 t whole black peppercorns
2 t whole cloves
8 sprigs thyme
6 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves

2 boneless duck breasts, with skin and gently, not deeply, scored in a crosshatch pattern
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 lb good quality duck or pork sausage

2 duck legs with drumsticks and thighs separated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 C duck or chicken stock
2 legs duck confit, skin and bones discarded and meat shredded
1 – 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, cut finely or puréed
3 T duck fat

1 C fresh bread crumbs (optional)

Baguette, sliced (and perhaps grilled or toasted)

Boil beans, bacon, and water in a heavy, large saucepan. Then place peppercorns, cloves, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves on a piece of cheesecloth, bundle with twine (bouquet garni) and add to pan. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, covered slightly, until beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Discard spice package and transfer beans and cooking liquid to a bowl. Cover loosely and set aside.

Season duck breasts with salt and lightly with pepper and place breasts, skin side down, in a sauté pan already heated over medium high. Cook, without flipping, until fat is rendered and skin is crisp, about 5–6 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter.

Cook sausage, turning once, until browned, about 3–4 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and slice 1/2″ thick on the bias.

Season the duck drumsticks and thighs with salt and pepper and working in batches and cook, turning as needed, until fat is rendered and the duck is nicely browned, about 5–7 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter. Add garlic cloves and onions to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 15 minutes. Now return the sausage, drumsticks, and thighs to the pan and add the stock, confit, tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until duck is tender, about 1–1 1/2 hours. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit to a glass bowl and reserve broth for later.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Rub a large, heavy Dutch oven with some, but not all, of the duck fat. Using a slotted spoon again, layer the beans, sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit and pour 1 cup of reserved broth over the top. Slice duck breasts 1/4″ thick on the bias and arrange over the top. Melt remaining duck fat in a small, heavy saucepan and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle optional bread crumb mixture over top of the dish and bake in the oven until the cassoulet begins to bubble, about 40 minutes (otherwise, just omit the bread crumbs). Increase oven heat to 450-500 F and cook until browned, about 3–5 minutes.

Let the cassoulet sit 10-20 minutes before serving with sliced bread. Bien mangé!

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Bread Gratin

October 29, 2011

Acorns were good until bread was found.
~Francis Bacon

Monday was Food Day, a grassroots event sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest intended to enhance the food chain. Through education and even litigation, this nonprofit watchdog group has battled for accurate labeling, better nutrition, and safer eats for decades. This day underscored and celebrated food’s significance as an integral part of the human condition…for vitality, diversion and pleasure. It aimed to connect the dots between good food, health, supply and sustainability and suggested alternatives to the ever expanding fast food nation with such events as Eat Real, Eat In.

This year’s iteration actually returned after an extended hiatus. In 1975, the inaugural Food Day took place, although it only lasted only a couple of years due to a lack of funding. This time though, with an increased social awareness of locally grown, natural foods and nutritious diets, Food Day should become an annual reminder. Good grub that nourishes should be a staple.

Now I by no means suggest that you should have slaved at the stove, unshowered, unshaven, garbed in dreadlocks and hemp, preparing only purely organic vegan super fare. If so, fine. But, that kind of overwrought integrity may prove indigestible to some.

Food Day should be celebrated nearly everyday. Face it–our species must necessarily eat and drink almost daily. Why make the art of cooking and eating such unwholesome drudgery? Some one in four Americans dine on fast food daily while obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates continue to skyrocket. Fad diets have been roundly proven unsuccessful. Other societies that have emulated our diet have promptly fattened. I am no strict health food advocate, but creating a fine, hale meal whether savored alone, tête-à-tête or around a communal table has few rivals.

In honor of this day, here is some staff of life.

BREAD GRATIN

Unsalted butter, for dish

4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 slices artisanal bread, cut 1/2″ thick

2 C fontina and/or gruyère, freshly shredded

Parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Nutmeg, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 350 F

Butter a deep baking dish on bottom and sides.

In a large bowl, beat eggs and yolks, then whisk in milk, cream, salt, and pepper. Add bread slices and allow to soak, turning occasionally, about 4-5 minutes. Layer half of the slices in the buttered baking dish and evenly strew 1 cup of the fontina and/or gruyère on top. Pour any of the remaining milk, cream and egg mixture over this first layer. Layer with the remaining bread slices and then 1 cup of the fontina and/or gruyère again. Then sprinkle with the grated parmigiano-reggiano and top with a tad of nutmeg.

Slip into oven and bake until the egg mixture is set and the top is golden, about 30-35 minutes. Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving.

Pourboire: should you feel a touch sly, you can slip in some sautéed mushrooms, pancetta lardons or Swiss chard between layers before baking. Also, always remember that nutmeg can be overwhelming, so be judicious when grating.

The day hunger disappears, the world will see the greatest spiritual explosion humanity has ever seen.
~Federico Garcia Lorca

On a somber note, every 5 seconds a child dies of hunger related causes in this world. If you find that less than morally disturbing, skip over these thoughts and move on to the Betty Crocker part.

It is time to move beyond this stagnant state of denial about regional and worldwide food shortages. The ever bountiful agricultural economy of the last half-century that was taken for granted is drawing to a close. A new era has arrived where food scarcity shapes global politics and may well lead to upheaval and conflict. While the world’s burgeoning population has created a marked increased in the demand for food, climate changes and irrigation woes have made it nearly impossible to boost production to meet these needs. This may not happen tomorrow, but it will likely paint a bleak picture for our youth and their progeny. Hungry and thirsty people will by nature contentiously compete, protest, riot and even wage war to feed and water their offspring. And yes, Virginia, this will affect Kansas too.

In an article entitled The New Geopolitics of Food which appears in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, author Lester Brown explores how food shortages drive geopolitics and create volatility. The forecast appears dire and reeks of unrest.

Begin with basic demand: soaring world population growth. Each year, the world must feed an additional 80 million people, most of them in developing countries. The global population has almost doubled since 1970 and is projected to reach an ominous 9 billion by mid-century. Quite a few mouths to feed. Several billion people are meanwhile entering the “middle class” and trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. These new yuppies create additional demand for grains to feed these animals.

Next, consider supply: supply and production are simply lagging behind the booming demand for food. The reasons for shortfall are manifold, including reduced water tables, depleted wells and aquifers, irrigation overpumping, eroding soils, and the ever-present consequences of climate change. Consider that more than half of the world’s population lives in countries where water tables are falling; that for a temperature rise of every 1 C farmers can expect a 10% decline in optimal grain yields; that coincidentally the politically roiling Middle East is the first region where grain production has begun to decline due to water shortages; that new deserts are being created due to soil erosion and mismanagement, undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s crops; that without consulting locals, nearly nearly 140 million acres of land and water rights grabs have been secretly negotiated allowing more affluent countries to grow grain for themselves in far away lands. Such warning lights on our collective dashboard should not go unheeded.

The pervasive rich-or-poor-each-one-for-themselves mentality which forsakes global energy, water, soil, population and climate change policies directly causes food insecurity and destabilizes broad swathes of the world. A form of humans as pestilence. Sorely needed are cohesive narratives coupled with conflict-resistant agricultural strategies shared by all. A risk rife geopolitics of food scarcity has emerged and must be earnestly addressed before regional and global breakdowns are at hand…and not until “once upon at time, long ago,” right?

So, chickpeas seem not just timely, but regionally apt.

CHICKPEAS & OLIVES

1 1/2 C dried chickpeas
Equal parts of chicken or vegetable stock and water, to cover
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and gently smashed
1 bay leaf

3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C green (such as Lucques or Picholines) and black (such as Kalamata or Niçoise) olives, pitted and roughly chopped
Several sprigs fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
Zest and juice of 1 fresh lemon
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Soak the chickpeas in a bowl of cold water overnight. Drain and rinse well, then put in a heavy saucepan with the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Just cover the chickpeas, with equal parts of stock and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until very tender, about 45 minutes. Drain, discarding the used onion, garlic and bay leaf.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat, and briefly cook the garlic, about 30 seconds. Add the chickpeas, salt, and pepper, to taste, only to heat through. Smash some with a potato masher, leaving some chickpeas whole for looks. Remove from the heat, and stir in the olives, tarragon, and lemon zest. Stir in lemon juice, to taste.

Drizzle with olive oil, and serve as a base for roasted, sautéed or grilled fish, chicken or meat.

POLENTA WITH CHICKPEAS & LEMON

1 1/2 C dried chickpeas
Equal parts of chicken or vegetable stock and water, to cover
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and gently smashed
1 bay leaf
Juice of 1 lemon

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C quick cooking yellow polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 T freshly grated lemon peel
Pine nuts, for garnish

Soak the chickpeas in a bowl of cold water overnight. Drain and rinse well, then put in a heavy saucepan with the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Just cover the chickpeas, with equal parts of stock and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until very tender, about 45 minutes. Drain, discarding the used onion, garlic and bay leaf. Toss well with lemon juice. Set aside.

Then, in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk, cream, stock, garlic, and thyme to a simmer. Discard garlic cloves and thyme, and remove saucepan from the heat. Let stand for 10 minutes. Place saucepan to the heat and return the liquid to a slow boil, slowly pouring in the polenta. Vigorously whisk, until it reaches the consistency of oatmeal, about 5-7 minutes.

To finish, grate fresh lemon peel over chickpeas and combine with pine nuts, gently tossing them well. Then, spoon polenta into shallow bowls or on plate, topping each with a generous mound of lemony chickpeas and pine nuts.

Pourboire: there is nothing wrong with substituting canned chickpeas that are well drained. But, they will need to be briefly simmered in some stock with onion, garlic and bay leaf to impart flavor. Just take care not to overcook the canned species.

A Sermon: Shop Local

January 30, 2009

…as in, a long tedious speech, particularly on a moral issue. It may sound trite, but our individual ecological efforts, each and every day, week, and year will make a collective difference to our Earth—so we become part of the solution and not the problem. Like life, this Earth is not a dress rehearsal. So, both environmental and culinary reasons abound for shopping in your own backyard.

Our Daily Bread is now grown and processed in fewer and fewer locales, often requiring extensive travel to reach your table. Although this production method may prove more feasible for larger suppliers, it remains harmful to the environment, consumers and rural communities. In buying local, your community is supported and fresher product adorns your table.

Transit
The average grocery store shelves produce which often travels nearly 1,500 miles between farm to home, and some 40% of fruit is harvested overseas. Those plants, fruits, seeks, tubers, bulbs, stems, leaves and flowers that now grace the table were former transients—over land, sea and air—-for as long as 7 to 14 days. Local victuals are usually savored soon after harvesting, requiring fewer preservatives or chemical ripening agents. The trip from farm to palate doesn’t extend for days or weeks.

Vast amounts of fossil fuels are expended to transport foodstuffs with the accompanying release of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other delightful pollutants—joining hands, nefariously wafting into the troposphere. As a necessary evil, processors use unfriendly paper and plastic packaging to stabilize food for longer periods. These wrappings wind their way into already congested, greenhouse gas spewing landfills.

Apart from the environmental harm that results from processing, packaging and transporting foods, the industrial produce and livestock farms and packing plants are themselves often the birthplace of air and water pollution.

Nutrition
Extended travel and storage often means lost nutrients—so choosing local, fresher products proves a healthier choice. Also, the preservatives necessary to stabilize foods during long trips are not always substances you may want to ingest as part of your meal.

Larger agribusiness farms also tend to use more pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones, all of which can be damaging to both the environment and human health. On the other hand, local foods from small farms—especially organics—usually use fewer pesticides and fertilizers, undergo minimal processing, are produced in relatively small quantities, as they are distributed within a few dozen miles of where they originated.

Community
According to the USDA, over five million farms in this country have disappeared in this country since 1935. Family farms are rapidly going out of business, not only causing rural communities to dissipate, but resulting in a loss of food quality. The U.S. loses two acres of farmland each minute as cities and suburbs spread into the surrounding communities. By supporting local farms near suburban areas and around cities, you help keep farmers on the land, and, at the same time, preserve open spaces to counteract the environmental downside of urban sprawl.

Labels
Beyond the local market issue, there are a number of other labels and designations to keep in mind, including organic, biodynamic, and sustainable. Organic food is regulated by the U.S.D.A. and must meet certain standards to be certified as such. While there is debate over the value of the U.S.D.A. organic label and how much it corresponds to the initial aims of sustainable architecture, you can usually assume that any food bearing the U.S.D.A. organic label is free from artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Biodynamic farming likewise avoids pesticides and fertilizers which renders a sustainable system in which everything on the farm is reused or recycled. There are a myriad of other words used to define sustainable agriculture, but in its basic form, it strives to sustain rather than degrade the environment while also being econonomically viable.

For a local market in your area: www.localharvest.org

Mise (En Place)

January 15, 2009

Our lives are not in the lap of the gods, but in the lap of our cooks.
~Lin Yutang

This modest quest was born of the reflections of a common cook, a layperson (non-expert) roaming the kitchen.

Sharing my journeys with you from market to kitchen to plate is meant to inspire, dispel misconceptions, quell unfounded fears and place confidence in your hands. Just cook and embrace, saporously so. As food is a basic human need, why not make it exquisitely pleasing to the palate, even creative? It only makes sense that the modest art of cooking should be rewarded by the divine art of eating. Because, face it, sometimes we simply want to eat.

The recipes that follow are only meant to suggest and are by no means a mandate. Plus, to assume there exists only one species of a dish can often be folly — many classics are flat protean with almost as many versions and descents as there are kitchens.

This site is not a harbor for what some have dubbed arrogant food even though that finds a deserved place in other kitchens and written or online works. Humble, rustic and eclectic fare may be more appropriate words here…or perhaps just love what sates you at the time.

Because a meal is simple does not render it any less savory or elegant. Here, there is no need for formal training or experience, yet an inquisitive, inventive character and passion for food may serve you well. Together through recipes and basic techniques, we will explore some of the varied facets of food and along the way visit some culinary lore, history, science, culture, art, geography, language — and even meander through a few fond memories.