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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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.

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.

A Divinity: Roast Chicken

January 22, 2009

We were not satisfied with the qualities which nature gave to poultry; art stepped in and, under the pretext of improving fowls, has made martyrs of them.
~Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Having authored another blog on a somewhat different topic, I became keenly aware of the shortcomings inherent in this medium. For instance, the reading is done in reverse chronological order, much as many of us tend to peruse magazines—from back to front. On a news oriented blog, this sequence works ideally as the most recent story is the first item you see. While I may intersperse news pieces on this site (see Obama Fare), the overall intent is to create an ongoing, yet comprehensive work which shares and discusses cooking techniques, recipes and food lore. Why this self conscious ramble? I suppose it is merely meant to enlist your patience as this work in progress unfolds given the somewhat backwards gait and unwieldy subject matter.

There may be nothing more comforting than a succulent, golden hued, crispy skinned roast chicken—the kind of meal that centers you. Maybe it’s due to tradition alone or the intense olfactory experience or perhaps the process of transforming the simple to the sublime. Here, we will explore a cooking method and techniques which will enhance this elegant, yet altogether rustic, dish.

While strongly suggested, but not mandatory, truss thy bird. Securing the tucked wings and legs of the chicken to the body with butcher’s twine creates a compact shape that allows for more uniform cooking. The main reason to truss is to ensure a juicy breast…dry bird dugs are not desired at most tables. When not trussed, oven heat circulates in the bird’s cavity and usually overcooks the breast before the legs and thighs are done. Should you opt out from trussing, at least stuff the cavity with citrus and onions or shallots, which will provide some prophylaxis.

ROAST CHICKEN

1 local, free range, organic roasting chicken (around 4-5 lbs), giblets reserved
3 T unsalted butter, softened
1/2 T dried thyme
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 dried apricots (optional)
2 prunes (optional)

1-3 heads fresh garlic, cut transversely (crosswise)

3-6 T brandy or cognac
3-4 T chicken stock, if needed

Preheat oven to 425.

Preparation:
Allow the chicken to sit at room temperature for at least 1/2 hour. Thoroughly rub the chicken inside and out with butter and season inside the cavity and outside with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Encourage more hands on that step. Place 1 sprig of rosemary, 2 sprigs thyme (and the optional dried fruits) inside the cavity of the chicken.

While this is suggested, but not mandatory, truss the bird. Securing the wings and legs of the chicken to the body with trussing string creates a compact shape that allows for more uniform cooking.

Place the chicken on a roasting rack on one side. In the bottom of the roasting pan, strew the neck, (the other giblets will be used later), remaining fresh thyme, rosemary and garlic heads with cut side up. The number of garlics you use is dependent upon their size and your preference for this versatile, supremely aromatic member of the lily family; but, I would suggest at least two heads.

Roasting:
Put the rack with the chicken on its side onto the roasting pan, and place into the center of the oven; roast for 20 minutes, uncovered, basting occasionally. Turn the chicken to the other side for 20 minutes, still basting. Then, turn the chicken breast side up and roast for 20 more minutes. During this last 20 minutes, drop in the remaining giblets. Reduce the heat to 375 and continue roasting with breast side up for 15 minutes more, still occasionally basting, until done. The bird should have a robust golden tone, and juices should run clear, yellow (not pink) when the thigh is pierced with a carving fork. Remove the herb sprigs and dried fruits from the cavity and place into roasting pan. Set the roasted garlics aside to serve.

Place an overturned soup bowl under one end of a platter or moated cutting board so it is tilted at an angle. Remove the roasting pan from the oven and turn the chicken so that the juices in the cavity are emptied onto the pan. Then, transfer the chicken to the angulated platter or board, with breast side down and tail in the air. This allows gravity to do its job as the juices flow down into the breast meat. Cut the trussing string free and remove.

Loosely tent the chicken with foil and let rest on the incline at least 15 minutes—it will actually keep cooking some, and the juices will disperse evenly throughout the meat.

Sauce:
Place the roasting pan over moderate heat, likely using two burners in order to heat the juices. With a wood spatula, scrape those bits stuck to the surface of the pan. If the pan is a lacking some liquid, just add some chicken broth. Then, when the pan is hot, add several tablespoons of brandy to deglaze* and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer several minutes until thickened—when it coats the spatula. (Consider also adding apple cider vinegar to the mix when adding the brandy to give it some pungency, acidity.)

While the sauce is reducing, carve the chicken. Strain the sauce, preferably through a fine chinois sieve, pour into a sauceboat and serve over or under the chicken. The straining will produce a velvety end product. The heads of garlic will have buttery texture and very subtle flavor, suitable for spreading on a fresh baguette.

This meal dances well with many forms of potatoes (particularly mashed), rice pilaf and green beans (haricots verts) with pine nuts. Also, a French burgundy or pinot noir will make your life whole.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

*Deglazing: a simple process by which liquid–stock, water, wine, cream–is added to the pan after the meat browning process to dissolve the residue. The bits adhering to the sides of the pan are scraped off and incorporated into the liquid. Deglazing ensures that the concentrated flavors are retained and become one with the sauce.

Not to beg, but does this plate rise to Obama Fare, Mr. President and Madame First Lady?