Life is like riding a bicycle — in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.
~Albert Einstein

Never have these meant to be autobiographical musings, despite the medium. Hopefully it’s never read as self indulgent, indiscreet, insipid, smudge free, egocentric OMG! Zuckerbergish gibberish run amok. That social mediacrity with identity-indifferent-track-and-sell-persona greed as the true intent — razing individual privacy and autonomy with impunity.  Instead, these thoughts are meant as mere reflections, sometimes gentle and other times sharp edged, on food and culture.

Compared to previous years, I have been remiss with Tour de France coverage.   This year’s edition began in Liège, Belgium, swept toward northern Normandie then swung back to northeast region of Lorraine.  The peloton then  streaked southward down the eastern border of France through the Vosges, the Jura, the Alpes to the Mediterranean and then back westward toward the  Pyrénées when the riders finally turn north toward  Paris and the ChampsÉlysées.  Today was a relatively flat étape (stage), with one stage 3 and two stage 4 “little” climbs, that runs 158 km from Samatan to Pau in southwest France which just precedes a showdown in the Pyrénées.  In all, the riders cover 3,947 kilometers (2,452.55 miles) over three weeks this year — already 42 riders have retired.  Makes my lungs burn and my legs weary just typing.

While much of the Tour’s majesty and quirks have been noted in previous posts, a couple were brought to my attention from earlier stages.  Ahead of the riders on the course is a publicity caravan of advertising vehicles (le caravan publicitaire) while behind the peloton is a snarl of mulit-hued team little cars laden with components, parts, tools, equipment, bikes, spares, bottles, computers, radios, the directeur sportif (team manager), and the like.   Titanium, carbon fiber, and high tensile steel alloys galore.  Within this circus are officials’ vehicles, motorcycle cops, medical vans, and photographers hanging precariously off the back of even more motorcycles.  Ballet and mayhem meet.

A sticky bottle is when a cyclist receives a water bottle from inside the team car with both parties grasping the vessel as long as possible, towing the rider and giving a little pedal-less boost to launch his return to the peloton while saving precious energy.  A magic spanner usually occurs when a rider has just had a mechanical issue, a wheel change or outright crashed. Once again, while  being assisted, riders latch onto the mechanic or car which accelerates, slingshotting the rider back into the peloton.  Similarly, attending to minor medical needs like spraying a topical antibiotic on a rider while he  holds onto a speeding car is also rather common during races.

Article 7 of the Tour’s rules, entitled Race Offences sternly reads:  “(S)lipstreaming or being pulled along by a motor vehicle, whether from the front, back or side as well as any grasping-hold of the bicycle or vehicle is forbidden under all circumstances.”   As with most sports however, team tactics sometimes delve into gray to achieve those little boosts with an eye on that sometimes elusive, collective goal of victory.  Just a little help from their friends.

Other times though, the game is not worth the candle.  This year’s Giro d’Italia race jury pulled several sprinters from the race during its penultimate stage for holding onto team cars.   The incident happened on the 20th stage, the Giro’s  “queen stage,” which boasts five climbs, making it an exceptionally difficult stage for sprinters .   A jury communiqué called it a fatto grave or “serious fault.”

This distinctly French plate seemed à propos

POTATO, TURNIP & GREEN BEAN SALAD

1 lb medium Yukon Gold potatoes, washed
1 lb medium turnips, washed, with roots and tops trimmed
Sea salt
2 bay leaves
2 large thyme sprigs

3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed to a paste
1 T high quality anchovy filets, rinsed, dried and chopped
1 1/2 T fine capers, rinsed, dried and chopped
2 t Dijon mustard
4 T champagne or sherry vinegar
1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb fresh green beans (preferably haricots verts), ends trimmed off
4 large eggs, room temperature
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T parsley leaves, roughly chopped
2 T basil, roughly chopped

Bring a large pot of cold water with potatoes, bay leaf and thyme sprig to a boil and salt generously. Reduced heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the potatoes are firm but easily pierced with a paring knife, about 30 minutes. Remove, drain and let cool some.

Bring another large pot of cold water with turnips, bay leaf and thyme sprig to a boil and salt generously. Reduce heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the turnips are firm but easily pierced with a paring knife, about 15-20 minutes. Remove, drain and let cool some.

While the potatoes and turnips are cooking, prepare a vinaigrette. In a medium glass bowl, whisk together the garlic, anchovy, capers, mustard and wine vinegar. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking vigorously. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside and whisk again before dressing.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and gently slice into pieces about 1/3″ thick. Likewise, peel and gently cut the turnips into 1/3″ slices. Put the slices in a large glass bowl, season lightly with salt and pepper and add half the vinaigrette. Using your hands, gently coat the potatoes and turnips with the vinaigrette, taking care not to break them. Set aside.

Put the green beans in a pot of boiling, salted water and simmer until just tender and crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Drain in a colander, then cool under running cold water and pat dry. Promptly plunge into ice cold water for a brief moment to halt cooking and retain the green hue. Promptly drain and dry on cloth or paper towel or the beans will become soggy. Set aside.

Gently place the eggs in a saucepan and add enough cold water to liberally cover the eggs. Bring to a boil over high and then immediately remove from heat and cover until done, about 12 minutes. Uncover and flush with cool running water and then briefly place in an ice bath to cease cooking. Dry promptly on paper towels and peel. Set aside.

To assemble: season the beans with salt and pepper, then dress lightly with with vinaigrette. Combine the dressed beans, potatoes and turnips, using hands to toss, and arrange on a platter or large flat bowl. Cut the eggs lengthwise, drizzle lightly with vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper. Arrange eggs over the top and sprinkle with chopped parsley and basil.

Serve standing alone or with grilled, sautéed, or roasted meat, poultry or fish.

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Salade Niçoise

April 3, 2009

The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palm, the gold beads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers—all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.
~Lawrence Durrell

While in mind, has anyone relished Durrell’s acclaimed tetralogy of novels entitled The Alexandria Quartet: Justin, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea? At least savor one, as he so fervently describes the people, lands and mystery of the Mediterranean basin.

Salade niçoise is a classic Provençal one plate meal brimming with valuable nutrients—the tuna and anchovies provide protein and are a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids; the olives and olive oil supply monounsaturated fat; the eggs provide protein and vitamins; the potatoes provide energy rich carbohydrates, along with potassium and fiber; and the remaining vegetables add more fiber and a healthy dose of phytochemicals and antioxidants.

To me, the summertime flavors far exceed any health value. But, to each his own.

Salade Niçoise

2 T sherry vinegar
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1-1 1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste

1 large head Boston lettuce leaves, washed and dried
1 lb green beans (preferably haricots verts)
1 1/2 shallots, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ripe red tomatoes (preferably heirloom), cut into wedges
1 lb red new potatoes potatoes, scrubbed

2-3 fresh tuna fillets, thickly cut
Extra virgin olive oil
Several rosemary sprigs

6 organic, free range eggs, hard boiled, peeled and quartered
4 anchovy fillets, packed in extra virgin olive oil
1 C Niçoise olives
3 T capers
3 T minced fresh parsley and chervil

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 lettuce leaf.

Prepare grill to medium high and lay the rosemary sprigs on top of coals. Brush the tuna with olive oil, and place on the grill, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and cook an additional 3 to 5 minutes, to rare to medium rare. Transfer to a platter, season with salt and pepper, and let cool to room temperature. Slice and lightly brush with vinaigrette.

Put green beans in large pot of boiling salted water. and cook 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. Toss with the sliced shallots and some of the vinaigrette. Set aside.

Bring a medium-sized pot of salted water to a boil, and add the potatoes. Cook just until they are tender, about 15 minutes, drain and let cool. Cut into quarters and toss with some of the vinagrette.

Drain the anchovies of oil and pat dry.

Toss the lettuce leaves with a minimal amount of vinaigrette and arrange them in a large salad bowl. Toss the tomatoes with some vinaigrette. Place the potatoes in the center of the platter and arrange a mound of beans at either end. Arrange the tomatoes and tuna on the salad to please the eye. Ring the platter with the hard boiled eggs, and curl an anchovy on top of each. Scatter on olives, capers, parsley and chervil, lightly drizzle more vinaigrette over the dish and serve.

Oh, and lest we not forget — a glass of chilled, crisp white, such as a burgundy or sauvingnon blanc.

Pourboire: A briefer version would entail the use of high quality canned tuna, packed in olive oil.

Green Beans (Haricots Verts)

February 19, 2009

Supposing everyone lived at one time what would they say. They would observe that stringing string beans is universal.
~Gertrude Stein

A mistreated garden icon…too often served in a mudane, overcooked fashion.

Haricots verts are the longer and thinner French variety…a touch more delicate and possessing a slightly more complex flavor. The cooking time on green beans varies according to pod girth, so sample during the process to assure they are perfectly crisp and tender when served.

GREEN BEANS WITH SHIITAKES

6 T unsalted butter
1 t fresh thyme, chopped
8 ozs fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps sliced

2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 lbs fresh green beans, washed and ends trimmed
2/3 C chicken broth
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add shiitake mushrooms and thyme; sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to bowl.

Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter in same skillet. Add shallots and garlic and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Add green beans and toss to coat with butter. Pour broth over green bean mixture. Simmer until liquid evaporates and green beans are crisp and tender, about 10 minutes. Gently stir in shiitake mushrooms. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

GREEN BEANS WITH PINE NUTS & TARRAGON

1 lb green beans, washed and ends trimmed
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T butter
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed

2 T fresh tarragon, finely chopped
1/2 C toasted pine nuts

Sea salt and pepper to taste

Put green beans in large pot of boiling salted water. and cook until just tender and crisp, 3-5 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. Set aside.

Heat olive oil and butter in large skillet. Add garlic and sauté until just lightly browned, then discard the clove. Add beans, tarragon and pine nuts; sauté until heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

GREEN BEANS WITH WALNUTS

1 pound green beans, washed and ends trimmed
3 T walnut oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 C roasted walnuts, roughly chopped

Drop green beans in a heavy pot of boiling, salted water. Cook uncovered for about 3-5 minutes; drain thoroughly, then drizzle with walnut oil, season with salt and pepper to taste and toss with chopped nuts. Serve immediately.

Paella

February 13, 2009

A morsel eaten selfishly does not gain a friend.
~Spanish proverb

Too long overlooked by a broader audience, Spanish gastronomy is at the forefront of the Western food cosmos. With its broad range of dishes, flavors and ingredients from the simple and rustic to the refined, artful and elegant, Spain is becoming the food destination. This “newly discovered” and somewhat overdue appreciation is likely due to the influx of tapas and paella restaurants as well as the famed chefs such as Ferran Adrià at El Bulli with his outside the box techniques. Like maestro Adrià, several of his countrymen also covet the prestigious three star designation awarded by the Michelin Guide.

Historically, paella was born from the fusion of Roman and Arab culinary heritages. Despite systematic, and often brutal, efforts by Christian clergy to systematically quash Moorish history and identity, much of the Iberian cuisine and culture has been heavily influenced by the Muslim conquest and a several century rule of Spain. Beginning in the 8th Century, the Moors developed a highly civilized land they called Al Andalus.

Outside some of the more obvious Moorish contributions—magnificent architecture, spendid landscaping and fountains, the introduction of paper, music, advanced academics, mathematics and sophisticated astronomy—the marked influence on cuisine is also indisputable. The Moors cultivated olives and oranges and also brought rice, cumin, saffron, almonds, peppers and other spices to Spain.

Now perhaps the most widely known dish in traditional Spanish cuisine, paella is often cooked over an open wood and vine fire in a broad round two handed paella pan. Paella pans of several sizes are available at cooking stores (one of my favored haunts), but it also can also be made in a large sauté pan. The dish is served right out of the pan at the table, family style, sharing the bounty with all.

Controlling the fire—the heat intensity—is paramount. The dish should not be disturbed during the process or you will cause the rice to cook unevenly. The idea is to cook the rice underneath to form the classic crust called soccorat on the bottom.

Several versions of paella exist often depending on region and available meat, game, fish and seasonal produce. The one constant, the leading lady, is the rice which should be the short grain variety, preferably Valencia, Bomba or Calasparra…even Arborio. Long grain rice simply is a “no no”.

PAELLA

4 chicken leg thighs, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons pimenton or sweet paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil

Spanish chorizo sausage, sliced

4 jumbo shrimp, peeled, but with heads and tails on
2 lobster tails, cut into medallions
Several squid, cleaned and rinsed
12 mussels, cleaned and scrubbed

4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium onion, diced
1 (16-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and hand crushed
1 t sea salt
1 t sugar

1 cup valencia or arborio rice
1 teaspoon saffron threads
2 bay leafs
1/4 C dry white wine
3 cups stock
1/2 cup sweet peas, frozen and thawed
Fresh cilantro

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat them dry. Mix the oregano and paprika with some salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture all over the pieces of chicken and marinate for 30 minutes or more.

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan or wide shallow skillet over medium high heat. Place the chicken in the pan, until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Add the chorizo and continue to cook until the oil is a vibrant red color. Temporarily remove the chicken and sausage to a platter.

Sear the lobster tails and shrimp for one minute over high heat. Add the squid to the pan and sear for 15-20 seconds. Set aside.

Make a sofrito—saute the garlic, onion, and tomatoes sprinkled with some salt, pepper and sugar; cook until the mixture caramelizes a bit and the flavors meld. Remove and set aside.

Return the chicken and sausage to the pan and lower the heat to medium. Pour in the white wine and cook until it is reduced by half, about 1-2 minutes. Add the sofrito and cook 3 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Crush the saffron and add to the pan along with the bay leaf. Season with salt.

Fold in the rice, carefully spreading it evenly around the pan. Cook for 5 minutes on high, stirring and gently moving the pan around so the rice cooks evenly and absorbs the liquid. The rice will float about in the pan.

Nestle in the reserved shrimp, lobster, and mussels. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a slow boil for 10 minutes. Near the last couple of minutes of this cooking process, scatter the squid and peas on top. During this entire stage, do not cover, disturb or stir or the rice will cook unevenly.

The stock should be absorbed by the now fluffy rice and there should be a nice shimmer to the top of the paella. Remember, the ideal paella has a toasted, caramelized rice “bottom crust” called socarrat. Allow to rest off the heat for 3-5 minutes, garnish with cilantro, then serve.

Pourboires: mix it up with other ingredients to change the character of the paella, including green beans, broad beans, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, mushrooms, serrano ham, chicken livers, rabbit, clams, snails