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.

Et voilà, mon passé n’est plus qu’un trou énorme. (And so, my past is nothing more than an enormous hole.)
~Jean Paul-Sartre

Out of my windows, I have already watched the repair of two separate sink holes which could really swallow cars and apparently were created by faulty storm sewers and water mains.

Aged structures such as bridges, roads, dams, storm sewers, water mains, energy, schools, railways, aviation, waterways, levees, waste, drinking water — each of these systems are so old, and in such dire need for overdue funding, repair or replacement that America’s report card from our own American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) stands at a D+. There are some one in nine bridges in this country that are structurally deficient. These are our own experts.

Two years ago, there was a need for some $4 trillion to fully inspect and work on these crumbling projects (in the last month, the House has passed a bill which creates merely a $300 billion budget for these critical priorities). Public health and safety demand re-structure, but unfortunately our Congress lags woefully — those faceless lives and limbs just do not matter. Sadly heartless and indifferent, there has been little empathy for suffering or public health in our Capital.

In August, 2007, alone a large portion of the interstate bridge in Minneapolis horrifically crashed into the Mississippi River during the traffic rush leaving some 13 killed and 145 injured. After recent heavy downpours in South Carolina, many dams collapsed and 19 people died in the flooding. During this spring, an Amtrak train derailment killed eight and injured hundreds more. Driving underneath or over old bridges, or on potted roadways or watching ancient water mains gush thousands of gallons over our roads are flat stunning.

My eldest son made something like this dish sweetly for us, as I have before and afterwards too — but this is a decidedly different version. Yet, still so sapid and scrumptious.

SAVORY PANCAKE(S)

1 C+ all purpose flour
1/2 t sea salt and the same of freshly ground black pepper
8 large local eggs
3/4 C whole milk
2 T fresh thyme leaves, minced
2 T fresh tarragon leaves, minced

6 T unsalted butter
1 C Gruyère cheese, grated
Coarse sea salt

Heat oven to 425 F

In a large glass bowl, whisk together flour, salt and pepper. In a separate glass bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. Whisk wet into dry until just combined. Stir in thyme and tarragon.

Melt the butter in a heavy ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Let the butter cook until it almost browns, about 5-7 minutes, then swirl skillet so that butter coats bottom of pan.

Pour the entirety of batter into the skillet and scatter cheese and coarse sea salt over the top. Bake until puffed and golden, about 25 minutes and serve.

A potato expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.
~Victor Hugo

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a faintly anise flavored herb in the family Umbelliferae which includes carraway, cumin, and fennel, et al. Growing annually from 16″-24″ it has hollow stems and delicate, wispy leaves, demanding hot summers and lofty sunshine with well drained fertile soil.

Containing no cholesterol and low in calories, dill is rich in volatile oils as well as folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin A, ß carotene, and vitamin C. This is not to mention that dill contains minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Dill’s benefits also come from two types of healing components — monoterpenes, such as carvone, limonene, and anethofuran and flavonoids, such as kaempferol and vicenin. Needless to say, dill herb is one of the most healthy, functional foods in the chain.

Too bad dill is not consumed for these reasons in this house — scents and sapidity rule — apparently though, the benefits come from the back side. Nevertheless, both “recipes” are darlings of our kitchen…simple starch staples yet glorious (good) grub.

BOILED NEW POTATOES + DILL

1 lb various hued small, new potatoes (“B” size)
1 T sea salt

4 T (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, minced

Dill leaves, fresh and chopped, in amounts to your liking (or rosemary leaves)
Truffle and salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium to large heavy pot, combine hand culled potatoes. Add enough cold water to cover the potatoes by about 1″ and set the pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, add salt, then reduce to a vigorous simmer. Cook potatoes just until fork tender, about 20 minutes, depending upon size.

Add butter and garlic to the pot and set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, swirling the pan and basting as needed so that the until the potatoes are well glazed, about 5 minutes.

Tear the dill leaves, and with the pot off the heat, stir them gently into the potatoes. Add truffle and sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and serve next to resting grilled or roasted meats, greens of choice and some more unsalted butter on the table in a ramekin.

BAKED RUSSET POTATOES

4 large baking potatoes, such as russets

4 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chives
Sour cream or crème fraîche

Gruyère cheese (optional)
Dill leaves, fresh and chopped (optional)
Lardons (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F

Scrub potatoes with a brush under running, cold water, then dry well. So they do not explode in the oven, pierce the skin of each in three places with a fork.

Place the potatoes in the oven, and roast for about 1 hour, depending on the size of the potatoes, until they are fork tender.

Remove from the oven taking care not to burn fingers, slice them open down the middle, and slather with butter and season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Again, put some more unsalted butter on the table for those who wish to partake.

I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.
~Nicolas Kurti, physicist and chef

Kepler 425b, one of the closest, yet older, cousins to our own earth, has been found. (Perhaps the orb age is a celestial topic upon which both seculars and Christians can finally, somewhat agree.) A so called exoplanet which is some 60% larger than our world was discovered by the Keplar spacecraft, some 1,400 light years away in the habitable zone — where water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. It revolves around a bright star in about 385 days, and the temperatures are suitable for liquid although the jury is out whether the planet has a mountainous surface or is gassy like Neptune. Both Kepler 425b and its star (G-2 type) closely resemble the earth and our sun.

Many opine that this exoplanet will have a bulky atmosphere, rocky crust and restless volcanoes with more gravity than we experience. Does Kepler 452b sustain life?

Awe inspiring.

Admittedly, the under-served, lifted and puffy soufflé with its molten interior is almost sacred.

MUSHROOM SOUFFLE

2 T finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 1/2 T unsalted butter

1/2 lb mushrooms (wild fungi such as cèpes, porcini, oyster or chanterelles or, if too expensive, buy cultivated such as crimini, shitake and button)
2 T unsalted butter

2 1/2 T unsalted butter
3 T all purpose flour
1 C whole milk
1 bay leaf

1/4 t pimentón
1/2 t sea salt
Nutmeg, a small grating
White pepper, a healthy pinch, preferably freshly ground
Cayenne pepper, a small pinch

4 large local egg yolks
5 large local egg whites
1 C gruyère cheese, grated

Gruyère cheese, grated, for topping

Preheat oven to 375 F

Melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in saucepan. Add the mushrooms and sauté for about 3 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and purée. Set aside.

Butter the surface of an 6 cup soufflé dish. Add the grated parmigiano-reggiano and roll around the dish to cover the sides and bottom, knocking out the excess.

Heat the milk with bay leaf in a heavy saucepan. Once hot, discard bay leaf and set aside the milk.

In another heavy saucepan, melt the butter, then blend in the flour with a wooden spoon to make a smooth loose paste. Stir over medium heat until the butter and flour come together without coloring more that a light yellow, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Let stand a few seconds and then pour in all of the hot milk, whisking vigorously to blend. Return to medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon; bring to a gentle boil for 3 minutes or until the sauce is quite thick. Whisk in the pimentón, salt, nutmeg and peppers and remove from heat again. Add the mushroom mash and mix well with the whisk.

While off the heat, add egg yolks one by one into the milk, herb and mushroom sauce, all the while whisking.

In a separate bowl, using a hand or stand up mixer wither fitted with a whisk, whip the egg whites until glossy and peaked. Stir in a quarter of the egg whites into the sauce with a wooden spoon or spatula. Once they are assumed in the sauce, fold in the remaining egg whites and the gruyère cheese. Turn the soufflé mixture into the prepared mold, which should be about three quarters full. Sprinkle a small amount grated gruyère on top.

Bake 25-30 minutes, until the top is golden brown, and the soufflé has puffed about 2″ over the rim of the mold. (Do not open oven door for 20 minutes.)

A Horizontal Culture

September 24, 2015

Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.
~George Bernard Shaw

Since Pope Francis addressed and postured (rightly so) before the chambers of discontent, the 114th U.S. Congress, please allow me to again pontificate about cheese.

Ricardo C. Rodríguez de la Vega, PhD. is a bespeckled, seemingly unassuming professor and evolutionary biologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and University of Paris-Sud, who enjoys savoring the wares at local fromageries (cheese shops) along with his colleagues. Been there, done that, but not in such a scientific manner. There are sound reasons for this repetitive behavior…well, besides the sublime aromas and delectable pungencies. These scientists are attempting to reconstruct the genetic natures of molds used to make cheeses.

So, to craft Roquefort, cheese makers use Penicillin roqueforti and mix them into the fermenting curds and then drop the loaves into limestone caves. The resultant mold spreads throughout and not only gives the cheese its characteristic blue stripes but also the singular saltiness. On another note, cow’s milk, soft brie is inundated with Penicillin camemberti or candidum which diffuses over the outside of the cheese and thus becomes the bloomy rind — which I flat adore.

But, turns out that it is more just than the human induced mold. These same live molds drew, unknown to their captors, from new varieties of dioxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from even distantly related species, also known as horizontal gene transfers. So, a cheese organism will grab some DNA from foreign species and absorb it into its own genome. A heavenly exercise in evolution.

PARSNIPS AND TURNIPS AU GRATIN

2 plump, fresh garlic cloves + 1 stick of unsalted butter

1 lb parsnips, peeled and sliced
1-1 1/2 lb turnips, peeled and sliced
1-1 1/2 C Gruyère, grated

Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Thyme

1+ C cream

Heat oven to 375 F

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin dish with a crushed garlic clove and then butter the dish well with the end of a stick of butter.

Layer the parsnips, turnips and cheese in a gratin dish, sprinkling every other layer with salt, pepper and thyme.

Carefully and slowly pour in cream.

Roast in the oven until the root vegetables are tender and easily pierced with a fork, some 45-50 minutes.

Pourboire: speaking of, why do Americans persist in wrapping soft cheese beforehand in cling wrap when waste is notably prevalent, and other cultures gently place cheese, just after slicing, in waxed or parchment paper? Oh, and serve at room temperature, especially with soft cheeses.

Chard & Serrano Tartines

October 7, 2014

Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly and love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything. That makes you smile.
~Mark Twain

Thanks for the break — it was sorely needed.

The time away did bring to mind when my then wife suffered a dreadful case of jet lag upon arrival in Paris. After leaving the airport, we taxied directly to the hotel to register and check our luggage. Since it was a little after lunch, we promptly headed to a cozy bar à vin (wine bar) for a brief bite. After one glass and ordering some morsels, I noted one of her eyes began drooping and the other was half shut. As much effort as she mustered, and even with donning her glasses, she simply could not correct those big brown peepers. So, we had to eat and drink hastily in order to get her back to our room for a nap. It was truly comical, especially in retrospect. For whatever reason, I have yet to endure the same malady. Then again, time will tell.

Although not requested, I did note that this rather small, yet stylish, wine bar with undoubtedly a tiny kitchen had a savory tartine on the menu. Donc, voilà un petit quelque

SWISS CHARD AND SERRANO TARTINES

2 T extra virgin olive oil (divided in two)
1 C swiss chard, washed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 to 1 C serrano ham, sliced a tad thicker than the usual paper thin

4 thick slices artisanal, rustic bread, such as ciabatta or pain au levain
Aioli or homemade mayonnaise
Dijon mustard

Gruyère or Taleggio cheese slices, to cover

Drizzle olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat until just simmering. Add chard, season with salt and pepper, and cook until just wilted, about a minute or so. Drain and cool somewhat on paper towels and then rinse and wipe out the pan.

Now, in the same lightly oiled skillet cook the serrano over medium high heat until barely crisped, again for a minute or so. Remove and drain on paper towel.

Lay the bread slices on a sheet pan and toast lightly on both sides under broiler. Then, brush lightly with aioli or mayonnaise and dijon mustard. Divide greens among the four toasts and lay out the serrano on each slice.

Neatly top each toast with slices of gruyère or taleggio and broil for a few more minutes, until just nicely browned.

Pourboire: Tartines can be topped with other grubbery, such as spinach, baby bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, kale as well as other types of ham or bacon such as proscuitto or fine bacon lardons and a variety of melting cheeses such as fontina, brie harvarti or some cheddars and perhaps some sliced and sautéed mushrooms, or smoked salmon, or even a poached egg. Space does not permit, so just use the best judgment rule and take a peek at the fridge.

Gruyère & Walnut Scones

February 9, 2012

The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.
~Thomas H. Huxley

To those who still cling to blind faith, failing to relentlessly test assumptions and rejecting rational inquiry, here are just a few of the more egregious beliefs that have been disproven and no longer enjoy acceptance in the scientific community…

The earth is the center of the universe and all celestial bodies revolve around it. The universe is static, neither expanding nor contracting. The earth is not spherical, but flat. The earth is a hollow sphere containing light and housing an advanced civilization. The earth was created by a divine being 5,000 years ago and is not some 4.5 billion years old. The theory of evolution is wholly false and imaginary. The human body contains four balanced humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The functions of all living things are controlled by a “vital force” or “life spark” and not by biophysical means. Life is generated spontaneously from inanimate matter. People are born with a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) bereft of innate traits or genetic proclivities. Modern alchemy, in which ordinary metals are turned into gold, is on firm footing. All combustible objects contain a special element called phlogiston that is released during burning. Global warming, the increase in atmospheric temperatures that results in climate changes due to anthropegenic causes, is a conspiratorial hoax. Santa Claus and the tooth fairy exist.

That is an extreme short list which does not even touch a host of fictions, but you get the drift. Empirical knowledge trumps raw faith.

When pandering to worldly warmth, please share these savory scones–best nestled up to a mate, with a bowl of hearty soup and a glass of vin rouge.

GRUYERE & WALNUT SCONES

1 1/4 C walnuts

2 1/4 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
6 T cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 C Gruyère or Comté cheese, shredded
1 1/2 t fresh thyme leaves, stemmed and chopped

1 large egg, room temperature, lightly beaten
4 T buttermilk
4 T heavy whipping cream
1 T honey
1 T Dijon mustard

Gruyère cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 400 F

Place walnuts on a baking sheet and bake until toasted. Allow to cool, remove to a cutting board, chop and set aside.

In a large bowl combine walnuts, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add butter and rub in until the mixture resembles coarse meal. It is important that the butter be cold so when it is worked into the flour mixture it does not become a smooth dough. Do not overwork–it should be like a pie dough. Add the Gruyère and thyme thoroughly but gently.

Make a well in center of the dough mixture. In a small bowl combine egg, buttermilk, cream, honey, and mustard and add to the flour mixture, stirring with a spoon until moist. If overly dry, add some more buttermilk and if too wet add more flour.

Gather dough into a ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead dough by folding and gently pressing it for about a dozen times. Shape dough into a round about 3/4″ thick. Using a cookie cutter or small wine glass, cut rounds of dough. (Alternatively, you may cut the dough into triangles.) Gather the scraps, reshape the dough into the same thickness, and cut into more rounds or triangles. Arrange on a baking sheet about 1″-2″ apart and sprinkle the top of each with just a little more Gruyère.

Bake scones until tops are lightly golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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.

Lamb, Chard & Ricotta Lasagna

December 28, 2010

Language is the archives of history.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Admittedly, it’s been much too long since pen has touched paper here. But, fear not—there are plenty of contrivances in the kitchen to unleash. The hearty number below is for those hunkering down in the white chills back east and across the pond.

Lasagna (pl. lasagne) is somewhat dual faced—both a form of pasta and the actual casserole made with that noodle. The pasta is broad, long and well suited to supine layering. The American version is usually rippled lengthwise on the edges while the true Italian noodle is customarily flat.

Not unlike ourselves, lasagna has a slightly fractured history. One school asserts that lasagna derives from the Greek word λάγανον (laganon), a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips, a word that still describes a Greek unleavened bread. Other linguists focus on the vessel itself and posit that the word lasagna comes from λάσανον (lasanon) meaning “chamber pot.” It follows, they say, that lasanum which is the Latin word for “cooking pot” became the precursor to today’s lasagna concept.

Seemed like a fairly benign etymology, until about a decade ago when the English laid claim to lasagna’s origins. You can only imagine the profound insult felt in the streets of Rome…that arms waving vitriol. Apparently, researchers claim that the court of Richard II was savoring lasagna as early as the 14th century. When pouring over the Forme of Curry, one of the first written cookbooks, they found a recipe for loseyn, pronounced “lasan.” In Middle English it reads something like this: Take a gode broth and do i an erthen pot, and do payndemayn and make pof paft with wat, and make pof thynne foyles as pap with a roller, drye it harde and feepe it i broth take Chefe ruayn and lay it in dish with powdo douce. and lay pon lofeyns ifode as hoole as poo mizt and above powdo and chefe, and fo thwyfe or thryfe, & sue it forth.

Did not the Romans occupy the English Isles for several centuries a millenium before Forme of Curry was compiled?

Back to the boot. It goes with saying that lasagna is a distinctly regional dish in Italy—a traditional Ligurian rendition differs from that found in Rome. Varying versions abound throughout home kitchens and restaurants here, there and elsewhere. For instance, this recipe does have some meat but does not have tomato sauce. So, beware those who use the phrase “authentic lasagna.” Just craft one with innards to your liking.

As with pizzas, paninis, and pasta, please avoid overburdening the lasagna between layers as the noodle should still play the leading role.

LAMB, CHARD & RICOTTA LASAGNA

1 lb lamb, freshly ground
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 plump, fresh garlics, peeled and smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 t dried oregano, crumbled between fingers and thumb

2 1/2 C whole milk
1 bay leaf
2 small sprigs thyme

6 T unsalted butter
5 T flour

Small grating of nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 lb red-ribbed chard, stemmed and rinsed
3/4 lb green chard, stemmed and rinsed

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
1 C shallots, peeled and chopped
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves
3/4 lb fresh crimini mushrooms, sliced
3/4 lb fresh shitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb dried lasagna noodles
Sea salt

8 oz semi soft cheese, such as Italian Fontina, Gruyère or Comté, freshly shredded
3/4 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated

16 oz whole milk ricotta

Preheat oven to 375 F

Drain the ricotta in a sieve positioned over a bowl about one hour. Discard liquid and set ricotta aside.

Lamb
Heat a heavy medium skillet over medium high heat and add olive oil and smashed garlics. Stirring occasionally sauté lamb until medium rare, about 3-5 minutes. Remove and discard garlics. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of oregano to taste. Allow to cool to room temperature and set aside.

Sauce Béchamel
Bring milk, bay leaf and thyme to a quiet simmer in a heavy, medium sauce pan.

In another heavy, medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly with a for 3-5 minutes to make a blond roux. Do not allow the roux to brown. Remove bay leaf and thyme from milk, gradually add to the flour and butter mixture, whisking until smooth. Then add a grating of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook gently until it coats a spoon, whisking throughout, about another 8-10 minutes. Set aside on a very low burner and keep gently warm for assembly later.

Chards & Mushrooms
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch chard for one minute, then drain, pressing out the water in a towel as you would with spinach. Chop coarsely. Heat olive oil and butter in heavy medium skillet. Sauté first the shallots and garlic for a few minutes, and then mushrooms for a few minutes more, until shallots and garlic are softened and the mushrooms are just tender. Add blanched, chopped chard and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir again, allow to cool to room temperature and set aside.

Assembly
In a large pot of boiling and generously salted water, cook the lasagna until al dente. Drain well and dry, then layer the sheets carefully between clean paper towels for later.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the chard and mushroom mixture with the lamb.

(1) Spread one third of the béchamel on the bottom of a 13″ x 9″ baking dish. Arrange the lasagne side by side, slightly overlapping, completely covering the bottom of the dish. Spread half of the chard-mushroom-lamb mixture over the pasta. Then spread some ricotta in an even layer atop. Strew half of the shredded cheese and grated parmigiano reggiano over the ricotta.

(2) Repeat layers by arranging in an overlapping layer of lasagne in the pan. Then, add the remaining chard-mushroom-lamb mixture. Again, spread ricotta evenly over that layer. Then, add the shredded cheese and grated parmigiano reggiano. Spread another one third of béchamel sauce over the cheeses.

(3) Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets in a slightly overlapping fashion on top and spread with béchamel sauce once again.

Cover lasagna with aluminum foil, place dish on a large baking sheet, and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. Let stand at least 20 minutes before serving.

Twice Baked Potatoes

November 24, 2010

Twice baked, double stuffed, loaded, filled or jacket potatoes can be both rustic and elegant fare depending on the finish. Only imagination limits the outcome. For other cheeses, consider cheddars, goats, emmenthal, manchego, brie, tallegio, asiago, fontina, mozzarella, bleus. Toppings are likewise endless, including lardons, varied herbs, hams, mushrooms, curries, even caviar.

Baking an extra spud will ensure that each finished potato is stuffed to the brim.

TWICE BAKED POTATOES

2 medium to large russet potatoes, rinsed, scrubbed and dried

1 1/2 C gruyère cheese, grated and divided
1/2 C heavy whipping cream
4 T unsalted butter
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of white pepper

3 T chopped fresh chives

Preheat to 400 F

Pierce potatoes in several spots with fork. Place directly on oven rack and bake until tender but not dried out, about 45-55 minutes. Set aside and cool about 10 minutes, but handle the potatoes with oven mitts as they will still be hot. Using a serrated knife, cut potatoes in two, lengthwise. Using a spoon, scoop out the pulp, carefully leaving the skin intact as a shell. Transfer potato flesh to large bowl and mash well until smooth. Mix in half of the gruyère cheese, cream, butter, and half of the chives. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper and white pepper.

Evenly divide potato mixture among the shells. Strew the remaining cheese on top of each potato. Place potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until filling is heated through and tops have browned, about 20 minutes. Immediately sprinkle with fresh chives and then serve.

Pourboire: Should you desire some flair, only fill the potato shells two thirds of the the way. Then, using a large pastry bag fitted with a large star tip, pipe in the remainder of the potato mixture.