We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.
~Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Such fallible creatures we are, so driven to ignore precedent and repeat our errors. We live forwardly but stubbornly fail to capture retrospect for a greater comprehension of the present. It just seems that grand blunders and miscues tend to abound during times of human conflict as well. Which brings us to the otherwise pastoral Ardennes forest, a land of human flaws, trials and tragedies.

A sparsely populated region, the Ardennes form part of la diagonale du vide (the diagonal of emptiness) a vast swath of land running from the French-Belgian border in the northeast to the Pyrénées in the southwest. Perched on a chalk plateau, the Ardennes are typified by steep valleys carved by swift rivers–the Seine, the Marne, the Asne, and the most prominent, the northward flowing Meuse. A bucolic region of dense verdant forests, rolling hills, deep valleys, ravines and ridges, the Ardennes are located primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg, but they also stretch into northern France.

The Ardennes were thought impenetrable by France’s top brass…unsuitable for grand military operations due to the redoubtable forest, challenging terrain, narrow and winding roads and frequently fragmented communications. Yet, the same Ardennes were the site of several military clashes rife with error.

August, 1914
The Battle of the Ardennes was a brutal conflict fought between German, French and British forces on the Western Front near the outset of World War I. One conflict was centered in the Ardennes forest and the other further north, at the village of Charleroi. The battle was provoked when outnumbered, brightly adorned French troops stumbled into German forces in thick fog in the lower Ardennes.

The French were to be reinforced on the battlefield by the British Expeditionary Force. But, an unexpected delay coupled with poor relations and communications between French and British commanders, caused the British to instead engage elsewhere in the Battle of the Mons while the French continued to fight alone. The combat was ferocious. “If you go into the death trap of the Ardennes, you will never come out,” lamented a French officer. In a single day of battle, some 27,000 French soldiers perished.

At Charleroi, with roads swollen with Belgian refugees, the French army began collapsing along their lines. His army pushed to its limits, the French general Charles Lanrezac ordered a full retreat without having consulted French headquarters. The scale of the French defeat was notable and losses were devastating. Though the command did not denounce Lanrezac’s decision thus tacitly authorizing it, he was later made a scapegoat for the failure of France’s offensive strategy during the Battle of the Ardennes. Many historians suspect this reprimand was likely due to his openly harsh criticism of his superiors’ shoddy field tactics.

The Maginot Line
France had suffered withering losses of life, limb and property in the Great War.
To deter future invasions from Germany, after World War I the French constructed a system of seemingly impregnable underground defensive positions. This almost surreal series of linked forts, vaults and domed turrets meant to protect the eastern frontier was called la Ligne Maginot. The forts were elaborate underground wonders that housed a half million French troops with protected fortresses, casements, electric trains, kitchens, bakeries, cinemas, air conditioning and the like. But they did not stretch the length of the border, stopping well short of the sea. Notably, the Ardennes was left virtually defenseless, manned only by a few poorly trained and weakly equipped divisions. While the French had earlier pioneered the use of armor and aviation in warfare, French military strategy had become shortsighted and devoted to the now obsolete static trench tactics of WW I. Few efforts were made to protect the homeland from concentrated armor, troop or air advances. Their armies had simply become anachronistic.

May, 1940
Europe had been at war some nine months. The armies of Britain and France, despite having declared war on Germany following Hitler’s attack on Poland, had seen little combat. This tense period, which came to be known as the “Phoney War,” met an abrupt end in early May, 1940, when Germany launched an invasion of France and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Even though reports had earlier poured into the French command that the Wermacht had been amassing troops and equipment just across the border of the Ardennes, they fell on deaf ears.

German armored units crossed the river Meuse and streamed through the Ardennes. They cut off and surrounded Allied units that had advanced into Belgium and The Netherlands. French divisions in the Ardennes were not prepared or equipped to deal with the major armored thrust and were incessantly hammered by the Luftwaffe’s air cover. German forces also outflanked the Maginot Line and advanced deeply across France. By the third week in June, German forces had reached the English Channel.

So, the vaunted Maginot Line was summarily defeated not by a frontal assault but by a massive German flanking maneuver by way of the so-called “impervious” and marginally defended Ardennes. The collapse of the French nation soon ensued.

The panicked French government fled to Bordeaux, refugees streamed out of Paris and the city was occupied. The recently appointed chief of state, Philippe Pétain publicly announced France would request an armistice with Germany. The armistice was signed in Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s same railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest used for the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Pétain would soon become head of the French collaborationist government at Vichy, and after French liberation was brought to trial and condemned to death. His sentence was commuted to solitary confinement for life, and he was imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died.

December, 1944 – January, 1945
As winter chilled across France, the Battle of the Bulge (aka the Ardennes Offensive or Von Rundstedt Offensive) took place near the close of World War II. Allied forces had rapidly advanced across France which led to a certain sense of complacency. They dicounted any chances that the Germans would seize the initiative to counterpunch and had forgotten those lessons of the 1940 blitzkreig through the Ardennes. So, those same impassable forests were left scantily clad again.

On the German end, the Luftwaffe had been effectively grounded, leaving little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. Hitler unrealistically assumed his armies may be able to defend Germany if they could neutralize and divide the Allies. Senior German military officers doubted whether these goals could be attained with this counter-offensive. Their concerns went unheeded by an irrational Führer who desperately wanted to stage a repeat of the 1940 campaign which preceded France’s sudden fall.

So, hidden from air surveillance, a formidable Nazi force assembled in the narrow, mist-shrouded valleys and thick forests of the German Eifel hills on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. There were glaring drawbacks facing them: a somewhat depleted, often elderly reserve troop force and a dramatic shortage of fuel. The Germans planned to remedy the latter by capturing American fuel depots as they advanced.

The attack proceeded apace at night in mid December 1944, along a 70-mile front of the Ardennes. Tactical surprise against this weakly defended sector was achieved during heavy overcast weather, which impeded the Allies’ superior air forces. The cloudy night skies of the dark forest were illuminated by German searchlights, flares, tracers, and the bursts of artillery fire. The noise of artillery shells, tanks and small arms fire was deafening. German fired artillery volleys at the trees which not only dropped molten metal on soldiers, but also sent large wooden splinters and treetops downwards. At first, there was nearly blind panic behind the American lines. Mayhem. Scattered bands of troops wandered about frigid, wintry forests, digging foxholes, and randomly skirmishing with any Germans they encountered. The combat was chaotic, confused and fierce in cold, snowy conditions. A bulge emerged and deepened into the Allied lines.

Dogged resistance though — particularly around Elsenborn Ridge and the pivotal towns of Bastogne and St. Vith — threw the Germans well behind schedule and denied them vital roadways. Many exhausted, young Americans displayed resolute heroism through numerous firefights while almost devoid of food, supplies and ammunition. The 101st Airborne Division, surrounded and besieged in Bastogne, was holding the town precariously. Lacking fuel though, the advancing German armored divisions finally came to a halt in the Ardennes before even reaching the river Meuse and then (when air spaces cleared) were constantly hampered by merciless air attacks. The Allies finally went on the offensive closing the last escape routes and securing victory.

The Battle of the Bulge inflicted horrendous casualties on both sides (some 185,000). In the wake of defeat, German units were left severely depleted as survivors retreated to their final death dance along the Siegfried Line. Shortly after Hitler’s suicide, Germany signed terms of an unconditional surrender.

February, 2012
The Champagne-Ardennes is a part of champagne land–that luscious, nutty, fruity, floral, ample, bright, elegant, flinty, musty, oakey, structured, toasty, woody, yeasty, and supple bubbly we so covet.

Located in France’s northeast, the Champagne-Ardennes is comprised of the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haute-Marne. However, the “region” designated for the production of Champagne, also includes parts of the adjoining départements of Yonne, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne and Meuse. The old French province of Champagne roughly comprised this same area.

An amalgam of art and science, méthode champenoise champagnes are tediously crafted from the cuvées of selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Pure varietals such as Chardonnay (blanc de blanc), Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (blanc de noirs) are created exclusively from those grapes. The slight reddish tint imparted to some champagnes results from using blanc de noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker the red.

Next, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire elixir, called the tirage, is poured into a thick glass bottle and sealed with a secure crown cap. The tirage is placed in a cool cellar and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, producing that cherished effervescence…those “stars” that the monk Dom Pérignon captured and savored centuries ago.

After several months, yeast cells die and the fermentation process is completed. The champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in those toasted yeasty traits. While aging here, the yeast cells split open and spill into the wine which imparts these complex aromas and flavors.

Then, in a laborious process, the dead yeast cells (lees) are removed through a process known as riddling (le remuage). The bottle is placed partially upside down in a rack at a 75° angle. Each day, the riddler turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while maintaining its downward angled postion. This forces the dead yeast cells into the narrow neck of the bottle where they are finally removed via disgorging. The bottle is kept angled downward while the neck is frozen in a bath which forms a plug of frozen wine containing those dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is removed and the carbon dioxide pressure forces the frozen plug out leaving behind champagne. At this stage, un dosage of white wine, brandy, and sugar is added to adjust sweetness levels. The bottle is meticulously closed with the cork wired down to secure the internal pressure of the carbon dioxide.

Not surprisingly, the dense Ardennes forest is also magically teeming with champignons (mushrooms) — chanterelles, boletes, morels, hens of the woods (Coquilles En Bouquet, Pieds De Griffon, Polypores)…

MUSHROOM-GRUYERE TOASTS & FRISEE WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

Wild Mushroom-Gruyère Toasts

3 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 3/4 lbs mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, cèpes, morels, oysters), gently cleaned and cut into halves or thirds depending on size
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C fresh thyme leaves, stemmed and chopped
1/4 C fresh chives, chopped
Pince of sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 C Gruyère, shredded
Fresh quality artisanal bread, cut into 4″ squares, crusts removed

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high until the oil is shimmering. The butter should turn just a light golden hue, but not burn. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the liquid has evaporated, about 5-6 minutes. Add the shallots, thyme, chives, salt and pepper and cook about 1 minute more.

Meanwhile, toast the slices of bread strewn with some Gruyère in a broiler. Cook on one side some, then turn over and toast very little before adding the Gruyère. Please resist the temptation to overload the bread with cheese. The mushrooms are the star attraction, the rest play bit roles.

Spoon the mushroom mixture on top of the toasts and serve with the frisée salad.

Frisée & Champagne Vinaigrette

1-2 heads frisée, torn into large bite size pieces

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with the frisée.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss greens with champagne vinaigrette.

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Squid & Heirlooms

July 24, 2010

A hundreth knyghtes mo… and four hundreth to bote, squieres of gode aray.
~Robert Manning of Brunne, Langtoft’s Chronicle (1330)

Said to be the ancestor of all cultivated tomatoes, they are the smaller garden varieties of these exquisite fruits. Pop(s) a shots, of sorts. The varieties abound: black, red & yellow plum, black cherry, red & yellow pears, coyote, green grapes, Isis Candy, Cuban yellow grapes.

For me, I adore that audacious rainbow coalition…differing hues, shades—vivid yellows, pinks, reds, purples, oranges, golds, and even bicolors to boot. A chromatic scheme that naturally creates harmony. And then the shapes. From precisely spherical to slightly oblong to grape or pear like. Artful imperfection, everytime I look at you.

SAUTEED SQUID WITH HEIRLOOM CHERRY TOMATOES & TARRAGON

1 lb squid. cleaned, rinsed and patted dry
3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 lb mutlicolored heirlooom “cherry” tomatoes

2-3 T fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped

Cut the squid body into ringlets and leave the tentacles intact. In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil to medium and add the garlic. When the garlic sizzles (but does not brown), add the squid, then salt and pepper. Stir and raise the heat to medium high until the squid runs from opaque to white in “color.” Add the tomatoes and cook until just heated through, yet not broken. Make double sure the squid is cooked briefly, or rubber will ensue. Stir in the tarragon and serve.

Ahi “Niçoise”

May 13, 2010

Sorry, Charlie…Starkist doesn’t want tuna with good taste, Starkist wants tuna that tastes good.
~StarKist, Chicken of the Sea

A highly migratory, fish found in many oceans, tuna are from the family Scombridae, mostly in the genus Thunnus. They are swift swimmers, with some species capable of speeds of over 50 mph. Unlike most flat fish, which have white flesh, the muscle tissue of tuna ranges from pink to dark red hues. The coloration derives from high quantities of myoglobin, an oxygen-binding molecule.

Tuna have a remarkable ability to maintain body core temperatures above that of ambient seawater which enhances their superior swimming speeds while running at reduced energy rates. This endothermy is achieved by conserving the heat generated through normal body metabolism via the action of an intertwined meshwork of veins and arteries, known as the rete mirable (“wonderful net”), located in the body’s periphery.

Whenever your love life has gone south, rethink those urgings from friends that “there are plenty of fish in the sea,” as 90% of the big fish in the world are already gone; and if global fishing trends continue, there will be even fewer wild fish left by mid-century. Love the one you’re with?

Across the seas, tuna fisheries face a number of urgent problems that threaten their continued existence and endanger wider marine ecosystems. There have been alarming tuna stock declines and unfortunately poor conservation strategies have been in the making. Troll and long line tuna fishing techniques have resulted in large bycatch, including threatened or endangered species such as sea turtles, sharks and seabirds.

So, make a sustainable catch at the market and buy tuna nabbed with troll or pole & line gear to avoid the evils of indiscriminate bycatch. Above all, please make tuna a rare treat until populations have had a chance to reload.

SEARED TUNA “NICOISE” WITH TWO VINAIGRETTES & FRISEE

Sherry Vinaigrette
2 T sherry vinegar
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
Pinch of herbes de provence
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1-1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

Whisking gently in a bowl, combine sherry and red wine vinegars, mustard, herbes de provence, salt and pepper. Then, whisking more vigorously, slowly add olive oil in a narrow steady stream to create an emulsion. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. May be made a day or two ahead and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator.

Tapenade Vinaigrette
4 T tapenade*
2 t Dijon mustard
2 fresh plump garlics, peeled and crushed gently
1 t sea salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
2 T sherry vinegar
1-1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

Gently whisk together tapenade, mustard, garlic, salt, pepper, and sherry vinegar. Whisking further and much more robustly, slowly add olive oil in a narrow steady stream to form an emulsion. Discard garlic cloves. May be made a day or two ahead and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator.

1 lb haricots verts, ends trimmed
3 T spring onions or scallions, thinly sliced

1 lb fingerling potatoes
Cold water
Sea salt

2 fresh ahi or yellowfin tuna fillets, thickly cut 1 1/2″ to 2″ thick
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 T fresh thyme leaves, chopped

3 T capers, rinsed and dried
1 C cherry tomatoes, halved
1 C yellow cherry tomatoes, halved
2-3 heads frisée, cleaned, cored and torn into bite sized pieces

Put green beans in large pot of boiling salted water. and blanch until just tender and crisp, 3-4 minutes. Drain beans in colander and plunge into ice cold water to halt cooking and retain the green hue. Promptly drain on cloth or paper towel—otherwise, the beans will become soggy. Then, in a bowl toss with the sliced spring onions or scallions and some sherry vinaigrette. Set aside.

In a large pot, bring water to a boil and add liberal amounts of salt. Add potoatoes and cook until fork tender, approximately 20-25 minutes. Remove from the pot and let stand until room temperature. Once cooled, slice and set aside.

Heat a large heavy nonstick sauté skillet over high heat. Brush each tuna liberally with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper and lightly with thyme. Add tuna to pan and sear briefly until rare in the center, about 2 minutes per side depending on thickness. Take care just to sear quickly and not overcook, and do not turn the tuna over repeatedly—just once. When done, it should be rare in the center but not cold. Remove from pan and lightly brush one side with olive oil, and lightly season one side again with salt and pepper. Slice tuna across the grain and on the bias.

Toss the green beans, spring onions, potatoes, capers, cherry tomatoes and frisée with sherry vinaigrette. Arrange the green beans, spring onions, potatoes, capers, cherry tomatoes and frisée in a colorful array on each plate and top with tuna slices. Lightly drizzle some tapenade vinaigrette over the tuna.

*Tapenade
2 C Niçoise olives, pitted
3 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and chopped roughly
3 T capers, drained and rinsed
2 high quality anchovy fillets
1/2 t fresh thyme leaves
2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 t Dijon mustard
Dash of brandy or cognac
6 T olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the olives, garlic, capers, anchovies, thyme, lemon juice, mustard, and cognac. Process in bursts to form a thick paste.

With the processor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until it is thoroughly incorporated into a paste. Season with pepper, then allow the tapenade to stand for an hour or so to allow the flavors to marry.

Pourboire:  apparently, a Dutch study has found that swordfish exude body grease which allows them to swim so rapidly.  While swordfish are the sole members of their family, Xiphidae, and are solitary swimmers, one wonders if the same performance enhancement oil holds true for tuna.

Salad freshens without enfeebling and fortifies without irritating.
~Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Frisky frisée, a feathery form of chicory, is a curly lettuce whose long tender leaves are joined to a short whitish stem which slightly resembles the bulb of a fennel plant. It sports pale, delicate, slender leaves that range in color from light yellow-white to yellow-green. Frisée can be described as a sharp green (not as bitter as brother chicory) which bears a slightly nutty flavor.

A hearty, rustic salad which is a meal on its own. This version is vaguely akin to the more traditional Salade Lyonnaise, which calls for wilting the leaves in the warm bacon drippings, adding croutons and again topping with a poached egg…then often served with herring and anchovies or chicken livers. It’s all good.

FRISEE SALAD WITH LARDONS, MUSHROOMS & POACHED EGG

1 lb assorted crimini and shitake mushrooms, thickly sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

6 ozs slab bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces (lardons)
Freshly ground black pepper

2 T sherry vinegar
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
Sea salt to taste

1-1 1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

1-2 heads frisée, torn into large bite size pieces
1 small bunch radishes, cleaned, greens discarded, and thinly sliced on the bias
2 T capers, rinsed and drained well

4 large fresh eggs
1 T white wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 375 F

Place mushrooms in large bowl and toss with enough olive oil to coat. Scatter mushrooms on rimmed baking sheet and season with salt and pepper, tossing again. Roast until tender, stirring some, about 25-30 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a heavy skillet, cook bacon over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden and remove skillet from heat. Season lightly with black pepper. Drain lardons on paper towels and set aside.

Whisking gently, combine sherry and red wine vinegars, mustard and salt in a bowl. Whisking more vigorously, slowly add olive oil to create an emulsion. Taste for seasoning with a piece of frisée.

Fill a large, heavy skillet deep enough to cover the eggs with water. Bring to a simmer, and add the white wine vinegar. Crack each egg into a shallow bowl or saucer to assure they are not broken. Then, using a slotted spoon, spin the boiling water into a sort of vortex. Once the water is spinning rapidly, gently drop the egg from the bowl in the center of the whirlpool, where it will spin around and coat the yolk in a ball of egg white. Cook until the eggs are barely set, about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs, draining well with a slotted spoon and dab the bottom with paper towels to dry.

Combine frisée, lardons, mushrooms, radishes, and capers and toss to coat with vinaigrette. Please do not drench the salad with an overdose of vinaigrette. To serve, divide salad among plates and top each with a poached egg.

If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.
~George W. Bush

Some foods naturally have genial, soulful connections. Think proscuitto and figs. Jocund flavors who jive…acid, tang, tart, sweet, pungent, bitter, twang, vim, pepper, fruit, earth…all meeting on one plate. This crisply textured and vibrant medley does not disappoint. A salad with spizzerinctum.

Endive, Cichorium endivia, is a slightly bitter, leafy vegetable which belongs to the daisy family and the chicory genus. One variety of endive, escarole, has broad, pale green leaves and tends to be less bitter than its curly cousin, frisée.

Should you complain about President Obama, lest we forget George “W.ar” Bush. In a parting shot at that Gallic crew who refused to support his ill conceived invasion and conquest of Iraq, the Bush administration imposed a 300% duty on Roquefort (Occitan: ròcafòrt) as one of his final acts in office. Designed as a tariff retaliation for an EU ban on imports of US beef containing hormones, the ever bellicose president decided to punish the thousands of people who herd select ewes in the harsh terrain of some 2,100 farms, all of whose livelihood entirely depended on Roquefort. Boy George and his wars on everyone and everything—from french fries to the Taliban. “(T)he answer is, bring ’em on”…one conflictual kid, even at the ripe age of 64.

As the quantity is minute, bring on your finest cold pressed, unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil.

RADICCHIO, ESCAROLE, PEAR, WALNUT & ROQUEFORT SALAD

1 C whole walnuts

Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
4 medium beets
Balsamic vinegar
Honey

1 Bosc pear, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 head of radicchio leaves, roughly torn
1 head curly escarole, cored and halved crosswise
Freshly ground pepper
1 C Roquefort cheese, crumbled

Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400 F

Spread the walnuts in a pie plate and toast for a couple minutes, until fragrant. Let them cool, then coarsely chop.

Trim ends off beets, and rinse. Halve and then arrange them in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and lightly splash them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a drizzle of honey, and cover dish tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes or so, depending on the size of the beets. When done, they should be firm, but a fork should slide in readily. Allow beets to cool uncovered, peel and slice into roughly hewn juliennes.

In a small bowl, toss the sliced pear with 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice. In a large bowl, toss the radicchio and escarole with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice; season with salt and pepper. Mound the salad on plates and top with the beets, pears, walnuts and Roquefort. No need to salt as the Roquefort brings a salty tang to the mix. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.
~William Shakespeare, Hamlet (scene V)

Why is fennel such a neglected child? A culinary tragedy of sorts.

It seems incongruous that this versatile perennial herb always warms the bench in cooks’ imaginations…especially given fennel’s illustrious past. In Greek mythology, the wily titan Prometheus smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk. The decisive battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians (490 BC) was allegedly waged on a plain covered in wild fennel. Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder lauded its medicinal properties, and had numerous herbal remedies linked to fennel. The almost omnipotent medieval king, Charlemagne, had fennel cultivated in his garden to serve the household, perhaps to be shared by each of his nine wives. He later regally mandated that fennel be nurtured in every imperial garden. During this era, fennel was used to protect against witchcraft and evil spirits. Later, in the new world, Puritans chewed fennel seeds during church services, calling them “meeting seed.” (Only Puritans would fail to grasp that double entendre, but perhaps Charlemagne was on to something.)

The fennel found in your local market is Florence fennel, or finocchio, which are topped by fragrant, delicate emerald fronds attached to stout stalks that resemble celery. The edible white “bulb” is actually not that at all, but rather concentrated stacked leaves that unpack like the base of a celery stalk.

You are not alone if you have never cooked with fennel, but I implore you to re-evaluate. Fennel has a subtle flavor that is enticing enough solo, but it also blends well and enhances the flavors of nearby foods. It is eaten raw (often shaven), sautéed, steamed, braised, roasted and grilled with a whole host of food mates—a versatile one.

BEET & FENNEL SALAD WITH CITRUS VINAIGRETTE

6 medium beets
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
2 T white wine vinegar
1/2 T organic honey
1 T lemon juice
1 T orange juice
1 T grapefruit juice
Sea salt
1/4 t lemon zest
1/4 t orange zest
1/4 t grapefruit zest

1/2 C hazelnuts, roasted and chopped

1 fennel bulb, quartered and cored
1 C frisée, torn in pieces
1 C watercress

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, lightly splash them with water, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel using a paper towel. Cut into wedges, put them in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Add the red wine vinegar and olive oil, then toss.

In the meantime, wash and dry greens and carefully shave the fennel quarters on a mandoline or slicer.

In a bowl, whisk together the shallot, white wine vingar, honey, citrus juices, and a pinch of salt. Allow to rest and macerate while grating the citrus for zest and preparing the hazelnuts. Slowly drizzle olive oil into the bowl while whisking constantly and then stir in the zests and hazelnuts to complete the vinaigrette. If necessary, add salt to taste.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss beets, fennel, and frisée and watercress in vinaigrette to lightly, but thoroughly, coat. (The French believe it takes 33 turns for a salad to be properly dressed.) Drenching a salad with vinaigrette is a cardinal sin which carries a sentence of temporary banishment from the kitchen.

The ultimate in canning. A traditional Gascon farmhouse method of preserving duck, goose or pork, confit comes from the verb confire which means to conserve by enrobing meat in fat. The result of this patient process is a flavorful, rapturous deity that will make you swoon…eyes rolled back in your head, only to flatline in bliss.

DUCK CONFIT (CONFIT DE CANARD)

8 duck leg thigh quarters
Sea salt
2 T shallots, peeled and minced
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
6 bays leaves
6 juniper berries, crushed
1 T dried thyme
1/2 T ground black pepper
3 qts rendered duck fat

1 whole plump head of garlic, sliced in half crosswise

Rinse the duck and dry with paper towels then trim off excess fat, leaving the skin intact. Season the duck generously with salt. In a small bowl, mix the shallots, garlic, bay leaves, juniper berries, thyme and pepper. Generously season each leg thigh quarter with this dry mixture, then refrigerate overnight.

In a very large, heavy pot slowly heat the duck fat just enough to melt it and add the duck pieces, and the surrounding garlic, bay leaves, juniper berries, thyme, and pepper. Place both garlic halves into the melted duck fat. The duck pieces must be completely submerged. Preferably, the pan should be large enough to hold the pieces in one layer. Raise the heat just enough to maintain a barely percepeptible gentle simmer and cook the duck uncovered for about 1 1/2 hours. Do not allow the fat to boil or the meat will be fried, not gently cooked. To test for doneness pierce the duck meat with a metal skewer. If the juice flows clear and offers little resistance to the skewer, the duck is cooked.

Gently remove the duck pieces and arrange them in a large glass dish. Ladle the duck fat over the leg thighs until they are well covered by a layer of fat. Cool the duck, then cover well and refrigerate for several weeks before using.

Well refrigerated, confit can last for months. When ready to serve, allow the confit to reach room temperature, then lift as many pieces as you will need out of the fat, leaving some of the fat on the duck.

Room temperature: serve over a frisée or arugula salad with dried fruits, toasted nuts, fine olives or thinly sliced red onions and a subtle vinaigrette.

Hot: sauté in a heavy skillet over medium high heat until the skin becomes crispy and golden brown, about 4-5 minutes each side. Drain on paper towels and serve with with par boiled potatoes that are then fried in duck fat and a green salad or haricots verts.

Other ways to use this tender, unctuous meat is to remove from from the bone and shred for use in a salad, pasta, pizza, filling a crêpe, arranged on top of a potato gaufrette, or making rillettes (an appetizer made with shredded duck meat and duck fat).