Quesadillas & Secret Laws

October 19, 2016

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
~Benjamin Franklin

Unfortunately, this is posted just beyond the cusp of National Hispanic Month this year (September 15 – October 15, 2016). Yet, quesadillas are welcome at our table at whatever the day or hour.

Now, imagine that your second language is English.  Better yet, that your cradle language is English. Either way.

Still, there are “secret laws” that are unsettlingly passed without public consent or approval to anyone and all. We have been taught endlessly that Congress publicly enacts statutes candidly, but when the secretive panel known as the Foreign Intelligence Survey Court (FISA) permits the surreptitious collection of phone records, interrogation or torture procedures it somehow becomes the law of the land. Intelligence agencies issue rules and regulations on national security issues are very often not published and not made known to the public and remain “classified.” These include, inter alia, intelligence gathering and the detention, interrogation and torture of suspected terrorists.

Secret laws deny each individual the ability to comprehend constraints imposed by official conduct. In short, perilous secret laws disallow constituents to challenge accountability or to demand any form of legal or legislative transparency. Law and fact soon become an addictive blur in a what is otherwise known as a democratic society with supposedly open courts, judges, prosecutors and legislators. Now, each may act with impunity and without the thoughts, acumen, judgment or oversight of citizens — individually or collectively, before, during, or afterwards.

The last time I looked, the preamble to the United States Constitution began with “We the People” — one of our Constitution’s guiding principles, to make no mention of the due process and confrontation clauses explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights.

While quesadillas may sometimes have directed ingredients, truthfully they are an amalgam of fine leftovers here — so, whatever is recently in the fridge or pantry are fair game (so long as you do not overload), e.g., brussels sprouts, asparagus, tongue, tripe, shredded pork butt, chicken or lamb, gizzards, livers, whatever greens, leeks, green onions, thinly sliced radishes, cheeses of any and all types, fresh or dried oregano, coriander, herbes de provence, thyme, fennel seeds, chipotle peppers, chiles of any species, garbanzo beans, hominy, new potatoes, fennel bulbs, edamame, chinese peas, snow peas, peas, salmon, mackerel, sardines, shrimp, squid, mussels, et al.

QUESADILLAS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1-2 T unsalted butter

1 lb mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 T brandy or cognac
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 ozs spinach or arugula, stems removed
2-4 ozs or so, cilantro, stems removed

1-2 jalapeno chiles, stemmed, seeded, and minced

Spoonful of salsa verde

Goat cheese or chèvre, grated or broken into small pieces
Gruyère cheese, grated

8 or so flour tortillas

1-2 T extra virgin olive or canola oil
2 T unsalted butter

4 local, farm fresh eggs (1 per quesadilla), fried

Place a heavy, medium to large sauté pan over medium high heat and add 2 T extra virgin olive or canola oil and 1-2 T unsalted butter. When oil and butter shimmer, add mushrooms and as well as salt and pepper. Sauté, adding brandy or cognac until mushrooms release liquid and begin to evaporate and mushrooms begin to brown, about 8-10 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.

Combine mushrooms, greens, chilessalsa verde, and cheese in a bowl. Place a large nonstick, heavy skillet over medium to medium high heat, and add extra virgin olive or canola oil and unsalted butter until it begins to shimmer. Do not allow to burn. While pan heats, place a large spoonful of mushroom, greens, chiles, salsa verde, and cheese mixture into each tortilla and place other tortilla over the filled one so as to make a sandwich. Place tortillas in preheated heavy skillet and cook, turning once, until tortillas are nicely browned on both sides and cheeses are melted.

Top with a large, fried egg.

Serve promptly.

Advertisements

Ubiquitous Caper Salsa

May 28, 2016

In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life:  it goes on.
~Robert Frost

This salsa can be drooled over whatever, whether edible flora or fauna.  Imagination and creativity are all that need come to the table (comme d’habitude).

CAPER SALSA

1 C capers, non-pareil, rinsed and patted dry

2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
Zest of 1 1/2 lemons, grated
1/4 C lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed and minced
2/3 C parsley or cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

1 C chèvre or other goat cheese, crumbled

In a bowl mix together capers with the olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic and parsley. Then, whisk in the goat cheese. Ladle onto…

Lentils & Walnuts

June 14, 2012

God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.
~Franz Kafka

Not to be confused with other nuts or wingnuts…those outspoken, irrational people with deeply ingrained, deranged, flagrantly ignorant political beliefs, e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, Fred Phelps and their ilk. The lunatic fringe.

Rather, walnuts are edible seeds harvested from deciduous trees of the genus Juglans, especially the Persian walnut a/k/a English walnut, Juglans regia. Walnuts are rounded, single-seeded stone fruits enclosed in a leathery green, fleshy, inedible husk. Inside the husk is the wrinkly, hard walnut shell, which encloses that kind kernel, which presents as two halves separated by a partition. Walnuts, like all seeds, are living organs which respirate. After harvest, the seeds continually consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide, so storage is crucial.

The common walnut is native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia, extending from western China, into the ranges of Nepal, through present day Afghanistan and Iran, and finally Turkey. Alexander the Great introduced the tree to Greece and Macedonia, so it became known as the Persian nut. Later, ancient Romans imported the walnut tree into nearby conquered lands, such as Gaul and Brittania, where it has thrived since. Some espouse that North American walnuts assumed the moniker English walnuts, since they arrived in the colonies aboard English merchant ships.

The potential health benefits of walnuts cannot be understated — abounding with nutrients, particularly proteins, vitamin E, and essential fatty and phenolic acids, tannins, and flavonoids. They are also rich sources of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. A so-called superfood.

LENTILS & WALNUTS

2 C green lentils (preferably du Puy)
1 1/2 C cold water
2 C vegetable or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
3 fresh thyme sprigs

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Splash of sherry or red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Walnut oil, to taste
3/4 C walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
3/4 C artisanal chèvre (goat cheese), crumbled

Put the lentils in a medium, heavy saucepan with the bay leaf and thyme. Pour over water and stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes. If the liquid is not totally absorbed, simply drain off any excess through a fine colander. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprigs.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat and sauté the onion until soft. Add the garlic for another 1 minute, then deglaze the pan with just a splash of sherry vinegar. Remove from heat. Toss the cooked lentils with the onion mixture, and then season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with walnut oil, add the walnuts, toss with crumbled goat cheese and serve warm.

Risotto with Fennel & Wine

September 24, 2009

We signal the captain, taking time out against the wall. He frowns. He groans. His feet hurt. His ulcer rages. He hates his wife. The risotto will take 25 minutes. Lasagna will take even longer.
~Gael Greene

Another dish featuring that Mediterranean darling, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).

Fennel is a potent font of vitamin C along with being a source of dietary fiber, potassium, manganese, folate, and molybdenum. In addition, niacin as well as the minerals phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper are nestled in this versatile and long revered plant. Fennel also boasts phytonutrients such as the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and various kaempferol glycosides that offer strong antioxidant activity. Whatever all that means to a single human being and to existence in general…let’s just leave it as a healthy compound of sorts that may or may not give you another day of that life you adore or abhor.

To keep it simple, I usually sidestep the nutribabble and just enjoy the aroma, herbaceous flavors and texture of this oft-underutilized green in all its glory—bulb, stalk, fronds, and seeds.

You can even push the envelope, as early test flight engineers were prone to say. For an extraordinarily transformative (and expensive) dose/experience, you can purchase the pollen which is collected from wild fennel. Tasting distinctively different than fennel seed or anise, and sometimes described as a touch curry-like, fennel pollen is a unique ingredient that imparts flavor and depth. Known as the “Spice of Angels,” fennel flowers are picked at full bloom, and then dried and screened. The pollen can be used as a dry rub on meats or fish before roasting or grilling, as a substitute for saffron in rice, pasta, or risotto dishes, or in stocks, sauces, and dressings.

RISOTTO WITH FENNEL & WINE

3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump fresh garlic cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 medium fennel bulbs, cleaned, trimmed, cored and coarsely chopped (save fronds)
1 C yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
Pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 T dried red chile peppers
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 T unsalted butter
3/4 C dry white or red wine
6+ C chicken stock

2 T unsalted butter
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Zest of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Goat cheese, crumbled and reserved fennel fronds

In a large skillet add olive oil over medium heat and sauté the garlic, then the fennel, followed by the onion with a liberal pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring regularly over medium low heat until fennel is soft and the onion translucent, about 15-20 minutes. Discard garlic and set fennel and onion mixture aside.

Pour stock into a large pan and heat over low until just below a simmer.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium low heat. Add chile peppers and onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Add the rice and stir, allowing the rice to absorb the moisture of the butter. Cook, stirring constantly for about a minute so the rice is fully coated. Add the wine and continue stirring until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add stock by the ladle until each ladle has been absorbed, stirring constantly. After your second ladle of stock has been absorbed, add the cooked fennel.

Continue ladling and stirring the risotto until barely al dente, and then add the parmigiano-reggiano, remaining butter and lemon zest. Add lemon juice, and taste for seasoning.

Serve hot, topped with crumbled goat cheese and feathery fronds.

Bruschetta or Crostini?

August 23, 2009

If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.
~Robert Browning

These crusty morsels often lead to one of those nagging kitchen queries: what is the difference between bruschetta and crostini? And does it really matter? From what I can tell, it all comes down to loaf size—although some would argue even that is a distinction without a difference. Either way, both are grilled, toasted or sautéed bread slathered with olive oil and garlic and then clothed in savory toppings.

Brushcetta, from the Italian bruscare, which means “to roast over coals,” actually refers to the bread, not the condiments. They are relatively large, somewhat thick slices of bread (such as ciabatta or bâtard) which are grilled, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. Bruschetta are traditionally dressed with tomatoes and basil, though other toppings from meats, herbs, dried fruits, vegetables, and cheeses have been known to adorn them.

On the other hand, Crostini, meaning “little toasts” in Italian, tend to be thinner, smaller slices of bread (usually baguette size) that are toasted then graced with vegetables, meats, spreads, and cheeses.

Whatever the similarities or contrasts, much like pizzas and panini they both allow for free creative license with ingredients and assembly. All that hampers is your level of ingenuity. Above all, find a great bakery for your “fond.” The recipes below work equally well in bruschetta or crostini form.

BRUSCHETTA WITH TOMATOES AND GOAT CHEESE

3 or 4 ripe heirloom tomatoes, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
2 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 t balsamic vinegar
8 fresh basil leaves, cut in ribbons (chiffonade)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 ciabatta loaf or bâtard
4 oz goat cheese

First choose your cooking method—barbeque grill, oven or sautéed on stovetop. Prepare grill to medium high heat or preheat oven to 450 or heat heavy skillet to medium high.

Combine chopped tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and wine vinegar in a bowl and mix. Add the chopped basil, season with salt and pepper to taste and stir again.

Slice bread on a diagonal into 1″ thick slices. Brush each slice with olive oil. Place on a cooking sheet, olive oil side down. Toast on top rack until the bread just begins to turn golden brown, about 4-5 minutes depending on your broiler. If using a charcoal grill, simply place oil bread slices directly on the grate and cook until golden brown as well. When finished, rub toasted or grilled bread with a sliced garlic clove.

Alternatively, heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high. Peel and crush 3 garlic cloves and place in pan; with a wooden spatula, rub the bottom of the pan thoroughly with the crushed garlic. Sauté the bread on both sides until golden brown. Because there is already garlic in the olive oil, do not add the minced garlic to the tomato mixture as is done with grilling or oven roasting.

Once cooked, spread each slice with a thin layer of goat cheese.

Align the bread on a serving platter, goat cheese side up. Either place the tomato topping in a bowl separately with a spoon for self serve, or place some topping on each slice of bread and serve immediately.

BRUSCHETTA WITH GOAT CHEESE, FIGS, PINE NUTS AND HONEY

1 ciabatta loaf or bâtard

4 oz goat cheese
1 C dried figs, chopped
1/2 C pine nuts, toasted
Honey to drizzle

Grill, bake or sauté bread as in prior recipe.

Spread with goat cheese, arrange figs and pine nuts on top and then drizzle with honey. Serve immediately.

A wide array of possibilities and combinations exist for both bruschetta and crostini besides those offered in the recipes above. Far from an exhaustive list, some more ideas follow.

Cheeses
Parmigiano-reggiano
Mozzarella
Gruyère
Fontina
Manchego
Gorgonzola
Feta

Vegetables/Greens/Fruit
Cappellini
Garbanzos
Olives
Capers
Avocado
Dried apricots
Figs
Currants
Roasted garlic
Roasted peppers, chilies
Tomatoes
Arugula

Herbs
Basil
Parsley
Cilantro
Tarragon
Oregano
Rosemary
Sage

Meats
Proscuitto
Serrano

Chicken livers

Spreads
Tapenade
Caponata
Hummus

Tomato relish

Nuts
Pistachios
Hazelnuts
Walnuts

Ripeness is all.
~William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, Scene II

Even setting flavors aside, this presents a brilliantly hued palette—reds, yellows, greens, white.

Avocados (Persea americana), also known as palta or aguacate in Spanish, are evergreen trees native to South and Central America which are classified in the flowering plant family Lauraceae, joining cousins cinnamon and bay leaves.

The word “avocado” comes from the Nahuatl word āhuacatl (“testicle”) which is a reference to the shape of the fruit. So, there is little wonder that the avocado has long been said to have aphrodisiacal qualities. The avocado is colloquially known as the Alligator Pear, reflecting its shape and leathery skin.

While there a number of varieties of this fruit, the creamy, rich Hass cultivar, grown in California, makes up over 75% of the nationwide avocado crop. Their edible yellow-green flesh has the consistency of butter, and a subtle, nutty flavor. They are about the size of a pear and have pebbly brown-black-green skin when ripe.

Nutritionally, avocados are a robust source of vitamin K, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate copper and potassium. Avocados contain oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that helps reduce cholesterol levels. They also greatly enhance your body’s ability to absorb those prized carotenoids that vegetables provide.

Lest I forget…tomorrow in the Tour, a deceptively difficult stage in the Vosges from the spa town of Vittel to the Alsatian wine capital of Colmar.

AVOCADO & BEETS WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

3 medium red beets
3 medium golden beets
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Red wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil

1 C extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and finely minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Endive or arugula

2 firm ripe avocados

Good quality fresh goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets, and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and lightly splash them with red wine vinegar and olive oil, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes to one hour, depending on the size of the beets. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel, slice into rounds and then halve the rounds.

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, and shallot. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. While whisking, season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days.

Toss the beets gently with the vinaigrette and arrange them on a plate with some endive or aurugula with the sliced avocado garnish with crumbled goat cheese and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Remember: dress lightly.

Pourboire: Avocados do not ripen on the tree, but only after they have been harvested. Ripen them for a few days before use, by putting them in a brown paper bag at room temperature, until there is some yield to a gentle touch. To hasten ripening, add an apple or tomato to the bag. A ripe, ready to eat avocado is slightly soft but should have no dark sunken spots or cracks.

Never refrigerate unripened avocados because they will not ripen in cold temperatures. Once ripe, keep them in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. But leaving them an extended time in the refrigerator will cause them to darken and lose their flavor.

To cut, grip the avocado on one side with one hand. With a large, sharp chef’s knife, cut the avocado lengthwise around the seed. Gently twist the two halves in opposite directions to expose the pit. Fold up a kitchen towel and use that to hold the avocado half with the pit. Firmly, yet gently tap the pit with a knife with enough force so that the knife edge wedges into the pit, but not so hard as to cut all the way through it. With the edge of the knife, twist the pit out of the avocado and discard.

Now, either scoop out the avocado flesh whole with a spoon and slice, or slice the avocado into segments. Gently make length long slices in the avocado flesh. Then use a spoon to scoop out the sliced avocado segments.

When you make his sandwiches, put a sexy or loving note in his lunch box.
~Anne Rice

PANINI

Maybe with the current economic woes and ever expanding disparities in this country’s burgeoning two class chasm, it may be timely to discuss just a simple two ply sandwich…or even a panino. They share an affinity.

Before my panini palaver persists, I have to preface. Even though they are often dissed as nothing more than a portable meal, making a really damn good sandwich or panini demands every bit the same nurturing that many other fine dishes deserve. Unless you fail to thoughtfully coddle them, sandwiches do not merit that “lunch bucket–not cuisine label,” something to be gobbled hurriedly at your desk or in the car. Au contraire! Rather, choice sandwiches are memorable art forms, both inside and out…

A panino is a sandwich made from a small loaf of rustic bread which is cut horizontally on the bias and customarily filled with cured meat, cheeses and greens. The literal translation of panino is “roll” or “stuffed bread,” with the plural being panini.

As with much of food history or gastronomic anthropology (as those phrases are loosely used here and elsewhere), the story of the sandwich is muddled. Such an abundance of cultural variance, criss crossing civilizations, endless definitional nuances, and often bewildering oral traditions…humanity’s comings and goings. The concept of bread as a focal point to the eating experience has been present for eons, so historical precision is elusive (see Pizza & Calzone Dough).

The first recorded sandwich was purportedly assembled by the scholarly rabbi, Hillel the Elder, circa 100 B.C. He introduced the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between matzohs eaten with bitter herbs…a sandwich which is the fond of the Seder and bears his name.

During the Middle Ages, thick slices of coarse stale bread called trenchers were used instead of plates. Derived from the French verb trancher, which means “to slice or cut,” meats and other victuals were piled on these bread platters, eaten with fingers and sometimes with knives as forks had yet to find prevalence. The thick trenchers absorbed the juices, the greases, and rather primitive sauces, and afterwards the soaked breads were thrown to the dogs or offered as alms to the poor. With the advent of the fork, finger food became impolite which rendered the trencher outmoded.

The first Italian recipe that vaguely resembled a panino was that for panunto (greased bread) described by Domenico Ramoli at the end of the 16th century—he even got nicknamed by his dish.

While references to “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese” are found throughout English drama from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a delay in the evolution of the sandwich ensued. Thankfully, the concept was finally revived in the 18th century by John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty and patron to Capt. James Cook who explored New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and Polynesia; he even designated the Hawaiian Islands as the Sandwich Islands. Rumor holds that Montague was so addicted to gambling that he steadfastly refused to pause for meals and instead ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread. While legends vary, it remains beyond quarrel that the word “sandwich” bears the name of John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

The sandwich was introduced to the states by the English import Elizabeth Leslie in the 19th century. In her cookbook, Directions for Cookery, she authored a recipe for ham sandwiches, which have evolved into an American tradition in many sizes, shapes and forms.

With the demand for haste emerging in the last century, sandwiches—from simple to elegant–have risen to become a staple of western civilization, for both rich and poor. Panini have slowly evolved from being basic worker’s fare to become trendy morsels on the food scene.

On panini preparation: brush the outside of the panini with extra virgin olive oil and fill it with whatever whets your palate—cheeses, cured meats, herbs, etc. As with pizzas and pasta, do not overload the sandwiches as the bread should be allowed a place at the table too. Proportions = “perfection.”

Should you own a panini grill, by all means use it. If not, use 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 on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. The panini should be cooked to golden brown with grill marks and the innards pressed narrowly…usually slightly oozing with luscious cheese.

Recipes will follow on a subsequent entry, as I may have already overstayed my welcome with these ramblings. In the meantime, consider:

pesto, arugula, watercress, roasted peppers, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, tapenade, mozzarella, brie, gruyere, talleggio, fontina, pecorino, goat cheese, proscuitto, serrano, coppa, soppresatta, and pancetta, arugula, chard, basil, radicchio, baby spinach, extra virgin olive oil, truffle oil or salt, garlic oil, ciabatta, pain au levain, or baguette artisanal breads.

P.S. Use your imagination, as the possibilities prove endless.