We are like travelers using the cinders of a volcano to roast their eggs.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Now, as is the French inkling, I started by doing claufoutis with cherries and blueberries, so they would become desserts.  This time, they tend to go more poignant.  Apparently, I adore eggs in most forms.

I began reading (unlike the Donald claims to actually does read, but really does not) The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar just the other day in part because Trump has assaulted Mexicans so many times in the past, calling them without any knowledge whatsoever “rapists, drug dealers, murderers, criminals.” Sometimes, we are goaded by others to look at someone who feigns to read, and yet who continues to make outlandish, deplorable, and unfounded statements about other cultures.

The Barbarian Nurseries is a rare, inspiring and sprawling novel that brings the city of Los Angeles (and even Earth) to life through the eyes, flesh, dreams, reveries, solitude, ambitions of a Mexican immigrant maid, by the name of Araceli.  The first chapter is called The Succulent Garden about how a lawn mower would not start for the angry and frustrated landowner, Scott the techi, whose maid watched from the window, apart — but Pepe, an earlier magician of gardeners, now since fired, had no problem with the same mower starting ever so sweetly with a wily, deft touch, sweaty and brown, sinewy and glistening biceps.

SAVORY CLAFOUTI, FLAN, CUSTARD (YOU NAME IT…)

3/4 C whole milk
3/4 C crème fraîche
4 large or 5 medium farm fresh, local eggs, preferably laid by hens raised on pastureland
2 1/2 T all purpose flour
2 T fresh parsley leaves, chopped
2 T fresh dill leaves, chopped
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 C Gruyère cheese, grated

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 fresh leeks, white and light green parts (cut off ends and leaves)
2 C fresh corn kernels
1-2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh bunch Swiss chard leaves, stems removed, coarsely chopped
1/4 C Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Honey, a dollop
Cayenne pepper, dried
Thyme, dried

Heat oven to 375 F

In a large bowl, whisk together milk, crème fraîche, eggs, flour, chopped parsley & dill, sea salt and pepper until smooth. Whisk in 3/4 cup Gruyère cheese.

Heat olive oil in a heavy oven safe skillet over medium heat. Add leeks and sauté until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in corn, garlic and a pinch of salt and cook until garlic is fragrant and corn is tender, about 2-3 minutes. Add chard leaves and cook until they are wilted and tender, about 4 minutes. Season the mixture with sea salt and black pepper.

Pour crème fraîche admix over the corn and chard mixture, and then sprinkle the remaining Gruyère and the Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. Transfer skillet to oven and bake until the “egg custard” is lightly set, about 40 minutes.

Serve sparsely topped with a dollop of honey and a pinch of cayenne pepper and thyme.

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The only difference between (people) all the world over is one of degree, and not of kind, even as there is between trees of the same species. Wherein is the cause for anger, envy or discrimination?
~Mahatma Gandhi

Pot-au-feu translates as “pot on the fire,” which is hearty French peasant fare. Granted, there is no raw beef, ginger, cardomom, cinnamon, mint, Thai chilies, basil, fish sauce, noodles (banh pho) or differing condiments and sauces as are found in phở (See February 3, 2009). Also, those seductive noodle sucking sounds are sadly lacking in pot-au-feu. But, given their culinary roots, cultural links, and France’s occupancy, colonization and even decimation of the Vietnamese peoples (preceded by China, followed by Japan and then the US) — it would not be surprising if feu slowly morphed into phở. Both words seem suspiciously harmonious to the ear. However, some etymologists dipute this assertion, especially given the stark culinary dissimilarities between the two dishes and due to some vague historical references.

POT AU FEU

1 lb beef shoulder or brisket
6 pieces of oxtail, cut 1 1/2″ thick
6 beef short ribs
1 veal shank, bone-in

6 whole cloves
2 onions, cut in halves
6 leeks, white part only
2 small celery roots, cut into quarters
2 medium turnips, cut into quarters
1 head garlic, cut transversely
4 medium carrots, cut into 4″ lengths
1 bouquet garni (2 sprig of flat parsley, 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, and 2 bay leaves, stringed together)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

4 new red and white potatoes, peeled and cut in half
1 cabbage head, cored and cut into 7 wedges

1 baguette, sliced
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated

1/2 lb cornichons
1 C coarse sea salt
1 C hot Dijon mustard

In a large pot, combine the beef, oxtail, short ribs, and veal shank, and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, and as soon as the water comes to a boil, remove from the heat. Set the meat aside and throw out the water. Clean the pot and then put the meat right back into the pot.

Push cloves into each onion half and add the onions to the pot, along with the leeks, celery roots, turnips, garlic, carrots, and bouquet garni. Season with salt and pepper and cover with cold water.

Bring the pot to a slow simmer, gradually, and let cook over medium low heat until the meat is tender or around 2 1/2 hours. Skim the cooking liquid with a ladle periodically to remove scum and foam. Add the potatoes and cabbage and cook for an additional 30 minutes, until soft. Adjust the seasoning as needed.

Remove the beef (shoulder or brisket) from the pot and slice into thick pieces. Remove the veal shank from the pot and cut the meat off the bone, again into ample pieces. Retrieve the marrow from the veal bone.

Pour some broth into serving bowls along with grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese with thick slices of toasted baguette. Arrange the meats, marrow, and vegetables on a serving platter and ladle some cooking liquid over and around. Serve the rest in a sauce boat.

Put the cornichons, sea salt, and Dijon mustard into bowls on the table.

Vinegar: that’s what fear smells like.
~Jennifer Egan

Tangy fine wine vinegars are aphrodisiacal…much like fear in today’s world.

From the French vin (wine) and aigre (sour). In the Middle Ages, alchemists poured vinegar onto lead in order to create lead acetate. Called “sugar of lead,” it was added to sour cider until it became clear that ingesting the sweetened cider proved deadly. By the Renaissance era, vinegar making was a lucrative trade in France, many of them infused with pepper, cloves, roses, fennel, herbs, raspberries, and the like.

The guild of vinaigriers (vinegar makers) received French royal recognition in the 14th century under Louis XII. The trade was centered on the town of Orléans, but the rue des Vinaigriers in Paris (near the fetching Canal St-Martin) suggests that there were vinaigriers in City of Light too. Today, one of the remaining traditional vinaigriers based in Orléans is Martin Pouret (founded in 1797).

In the making of vinegar, science and art merge, and like its alter ego, wine, vinegar is a subject of scrutiny by gourmands. The transformation of wine or fruit juice to vinegar is a chemical process in which ethyl alcohol undergoes partial oxidation that results in the formation of acetaldehyde which is later converted into acetic acid. Should you care, the chemical reaction flows something like this: CH 3 CH 2 OH=2HCH 3 CHO=CH 3 COOH.

I would heartily recommend maintaining a selection of vinegars in the pantry, with red wine vinegar as the central choice, but make room in the pantry for white wine, champagne, tarragon, apple cider, sherry, and balsamic vinegars (or the French take, banyuls).

This plate is a classic, but by no means should be considered antediluvian. More like primeval.

LEEKS VINAIGRETTE

8 small leeks
Sea salt

2 T Dijon mustard
2 T red wine vinegar
1 small shallot, peeled and finely minced
6 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 T capers
12 cornichons
12 niçoise olives, pitted
2 eggs, hard boiled and halved lengthwise

Trim leeks, cutting off hairy roots, removing tough outer layers, and trimming off the tops while leaving some green. Make a lengthwise slit part way down each leek. Put leeks in a large glass bowl with cool running tap water and swish to remove any sand or dirt. Remove leeks and set aside on a towel.

Fill a pot with cold water and bring to a boil. Then, salt generously and drop in leeks. Reduce heat some and cook at a brisk simmer until leeks are tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 8-10 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool to room temperature, again on a towel.

Meanwhile whisk together mustard, wine vinegar and shallot in a bowl. Vigorously whisk in olive oil to emulsify and make a smooth sauce. Season with salt and pepper and whisk a little more. The vinaigrette should be fairly bright, and the mustard flavor should come through, but not too patently.

Arrange leeks on plates. Spoon vinaigrette over leeks and sprinkle with capers. If desired, garnish each plate with cornichons, olives, and eggs. And then “oh yeah, baby.”

An Alsatian bend on that rustic quintessential coq au vin, joining other not so lesser locals like coq au vin jaune (Jura), coq au pourpre (Beaujolais nouveau), coq au Champagne, and so on. Variations on a theme and emulation abound in cuisine — in other places, too. A word to fellow chicken trollops: this is good grub.

COQ AU RIESLING (CHICKEN WITH RIESLING)

6 thick slices pancetta or bacon, cut into lardons

4 chicken leg-thigh quarters, rinsed and well dried
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil

4 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 T brandy or Cognac

2 C dry Riesling wine
1 C chicken stock
1 bay leaf
3 thyme sprigs

2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 C fresh crimini mushrooms, quartered
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2+ C crème fraîche

Fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped

In a large, heavy deep skillet, fry the cut bacon over medium heat until crisp. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain.

Salt and pepper the chicken pieces. In a heavy, deep skillet or Dutch oven add butter and olive oil over medium high heat. When it is lively hot, but not smoking, lay in the chicken skin side down. In batches and without crowding the pan, cook until nicely golden, about 4-5 minutes per side. Set cooked chicken aside in a platter or casserole dish, tented loosely with aluminum foil.

Add the shallots and garlic to the pan and cook for one minute more. Drizzle with brandy and flambé by striking a long match and carefully lighting the fumes. Allow to sit until flames extinguish.

Place the chicken back into the pan. Pour adequate wine and stock to cover the chicken. Cover the pan and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 20-25 minutes. Remove the chicken to a platter or casserole dish and tent loosely. Discard the thyme and bay leaf and reserve the liquid.

In the meantime, place heavy skillet with butter and oil over medium high heat. When the butter is well heated but not browned, add the mushrooms and toss well so they absorb the butter. Season with salt and pepper and continue tossing until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.

Cook the reserved liquid from the chicken/brandy/wine down to a sauce consistency. Then, whisk in the crème fraîche — the sauce should ultimately become glossy and coat a spoon well. Adjust seasoning to your liking. Return the chicken to the pan along with the lardons and mushrooms. Simmer a couple of minutes to blend the flavors and heat.

Plate separately and ladle some sauce over or serve on a platter, country style. Scatter with chopped tarragon and serve with buttered artisanal noodles, mashed or smashed potatoes+turnips+celeriac or rice pilaf, and a favored seasonal green or even a side of braised cabbage.

Pourboire: instead of shallots, try 3-4 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), cut in half lengthwise then sliced into half moons.

Clam Chowder Without Winter?

February 20, 2012

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
~Andrew Wyeth

Waiting for a frigid, stark white night to savor some chowder seems futile this winter. The weather has bordered on the absurd here. In the lower 48, temperatures have been freakishly warm particularly from the plains to the east coast, confusing flora and fauna and upending snow resort life. This week was no different with another balmy February stretch and no end in sight to the warmer than usual temps. Cold refused to settle in this year, and a measly percentage of the land has been blanketed in snow. Even rainfall has been lacking.

Besides drought, there are downsides to this t-shirt and shorts weather. Our friendly mosquitoes, flies, fleas and ticks may emerge earlier and if the temps remain moderate, and they are given a longer times to reproduce, pest populations could be noticeably larger this summer. Yet another danger looms as plants, tree and shrubs start to grow sooner in response to warmer temperatures and longer periods of sunlight. If fooled by these warmer periods they may begin to bud, shedding their winter coats. Should freezing temperatures arrive, it can prove fatal to some.

Some of this aberrant winter weather has been caused by the Arctic Oscillation, a pressure system that drives where the jet stream divides warm and cold air masses across the country. This year, cold northern air was fenced off at higher latitudes than usual which helps explain our warmth and why Alaska has been enduring such a raw, arctic winter. Others have also credited the mild conditions to the La Niña climate pattern, a system in which low pressure systems pull warm air north from the equator.

Chowder is a generic name for seafood or vegetable stews and thickened soups, often finished with milk or cream although others prefer briny or tomato based. Debate rages on whose is better. The English word “chowder” was coined in the mid 18th century, apparently from the cooking pot called a chaudière (12th century term from fishing villages along the Atlantic coast of France), traced from the Late Latin caldaria (a place for warming things). The word and technique were introduced in Newfoundland by Breton fishermen and cooks, then later spread to New England. Others claim that the word derived from the old English word jowter (fish monger).

CLAM CHOWDER

8 ozs thick sliced bacon, cut into 1/2 ” lardons
Extra virgin olive oil

2 T unsalted butter
2 C leeks, white and green parts, clean and coarsely chopped
2 C yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 C celery, finely chopped
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, lightly smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 C all purpose flour
3 C whole milk
3 C heavy whipping cream
2 bay leaves

2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
Tied cheesecloth with thyme, oregano, and parsley
Sea salt
Water

4 C clams, chopped, strained with juice reserved
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chives, chopped

Drizzle a slight amount of olive oil in a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the bacon first to a cool pan, then heat to medium, and let render for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan and strew on a paper towel covered plate to drain. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of bacon fat.

Return pan to stove and add 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the leeks, onions, celery and garlic to the pan and stir to coat with the bacon fat and butter. Season with salt and pepper, and cook slowly over medium until the vegetables are translucent and tender, about 15 minutes. Remove and discard garlics. Add 3 more tablespoons of butter and when melted, stir in the flour to coat the vegetables and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cream, add bay leaves, season some with salt and pepper, and bring to a low simmer. Slowly stir in some reserved clam juice to taste.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes, cheesecloth with herbs, and salt in a pot or large saucepan, add cold water to cover, bring to a lively simmer, and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and spread potatoes on a pan to cool and discard the bag with herbs.

Remove and discard bay leaves from the chowder. Again season with salt and pepper to your liking. Gently add the potatoes, reserved lardons and then the clams, and simmer about 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish with chives.

Repeat that again…for it has the distinct ring of a pleonasm. A word excess that resonates from screens across the country during NFL Inc.’s couch potato dance. After each disputed or scoring play this distracting phrase echoes over and over again.

Pleonasm: (pli:ənæzəm), n, the use of more words than necessary to express an idea; redundancy. In English, it appeared first during the late 16th century, and was derived from Late Latin pleonasmus, from Greek pleonasmós (“too much”), from pleonazein (“to be more than enough”), from pleon (“more”), comp. of polys (“much”). Neoplasms are antonyms of oxymora. A few examples–advance reservations, basic fundamentals, commute back and forth, consensus of opinion, join together, advance warning, surrounded on all sides, regular routine, merge together, unexpected surprise, wept tears, various and sundry, proactive planning, ATM machine.

Because Thanksgiving is more a culinary celebration and is not quite so mired down in religious overtones or lavish shopping odysseys, it is my favored holiday. Although there is that deserved guilt associated with decimating, exploiting and transforming an entire Native American culture…extinguishing entire indigenous populations across millions of square miles of land. A shameless conquest of epic proportions that has been buried in our history texts and banished from our collective conscience. Anglophilic revisionism again perseveres.

Consider serving this side dish of gratitude as part of your T-Day feast.

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS WITH POTATOES, CELERIAC & LEEKS

1-2 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Butter, unsalted

2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, white and pale green parts sliced thinly crosswise
2 T unsalted butter
1 t dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 lbs baking potatoes, preferably russets, peeled and very thinly sliced crosswise
1 celery root, peeled and very thinly sliced crosswise

2+ C grated gruyère cheese
1+ C heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 F

Melt butter 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced leeks, thyme, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and translucent, about 8 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Set leeks aside in a bowl.

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin or baking dish with a crushed garlic clove, and then lightly butter the dish with the end of a stick of butter. Arrange one half of the sliced potatoes and celeriac slightly overlapped in a single alternating layer. Strew half of the cooked leeks over the potatoes and celeriac. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then evenly douse with half of the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange a second layer of potatoes and celeriac followed by the remaining leeks. Top again with the remaining leeks, cheese, cream and season with salt and pepper. Lightly grate some fresh nutmeg on the top layer to finish.

Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until crisp and golden, about 1 hour. Should the top begin to brown too rapidly, simply cover with aluminum foil. Check for doneness with a fork. Remove from oven, let rest for at least 10 minutes, and then serve.

Armistice Day & Soup

November 12, 2011

There never was a good war, or a bad peace.
~Benjamin Franklin

11.11.11.11.11—it turned 11:11am on November 11, 2011. The War To End All Wars, World War I, ended 93 years ago yesterday.

The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest on November 11, 1918 near 5:00am, but was not effective until 11:00am that same day, allowing commanders to spread the word along the fronts. The inglorious eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The Armistice was executed in a carriage of Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s private train, CIWL #2419 (Le Wagon de l’Armistice), and terms addressed such issues as the prompt cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German troops to behind their borders, prisoner exchanges, promises of reparations, the internment of the German fleet, and the surrender of munitions. A fragile peace had been reached.

By the time the Armistice had been signed, military and civilian casualties stood at some 35 million. The French countryside had been decimated—buildings, homes, farms even entire villages were leveled; armies would soon leave behind devastated factories, bridges, roads, railroads; shell craters punctured pastures as far as the eye could see with unexploded munitions scattered everywhere; solitary torn, burnt trees strained to rise above the rubble; stiff horse and livestock carcasses lay motionless far and wide; wrecked tanks, gnarled helmets, barbed wire, twisted scrap iron in all shapes were surreally strewn on barren land; and abandonned trenches after trenches were bizarrely carved into once fertile fields. A post-apocalyptic, almost lunar landscape.

And sadly, the final day of World War I still produced nearly 11,000 troop casualties; more than those amassed on D-Day, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of occupied Normandy less than three decades later.

Precious young life and limb was lost on this last half-day when some field commanders, knowing that an Armistice had already been signed, insisted on forging ahead in battle. Major General William Wright, of the 89th American Division, was one such culprit. Having received word that there were bathing facilities in the nearby village of Stenay, he ordered his men to storm the town just so his exhausted, filthy troops could refresh themselves. The town would have been peaceably handed over to these forces in a matter of hours. Wright’s lunacy cost some 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for reasons beyond comprehension.

That same day in the nearby Argonne region, American private Henry Gunther was part of a pointless, inexplicable charge against astonished German troops who knew the Armistice was about to occur. Ironically of German descent, he was shot dead less than a minute before 11:00am on that day. Pvt. Gunther carries the infamous label as the last soldier to be killed in action in World War I…and senselessly so.

It is a somber day. While vets should doubtless be honored for their sacrifices and losses, it should also be remembered that the predominant victims of modern warfare are civilians, not soldiers. World War I began that inexorable trend toward considerably more innocent men, women and children dying in war than combatants (without even taking into account the untold civilian displacement, disease, destitution, and famine). Those disregarded, soon forgotten and collaterally caught in the crossfire tend to suffer most.

How to rise from such gloom? Breaking bread is a start. Food nags us at times of both celebration and sorrow. A simple meal is sustenance, ritual, comfort, even quiet joy…a gentle, peaceful kiss. So, please share some primordial fare.

MUSHROOM & ROOT SOUP

2 T dried mushrooms (porcini, morels or shitakes)
1/2 C chicken stock + 1/2 C water, heated

3 T butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, trimmed and roughly chopped
2 medium parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium celeriac, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
3 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 C chicken broth

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lb wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Pinch of dried thyme

Fresh chives
Crème fraîche

Soak the dried mushrooms in the warm stock and water about 20 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed. Reserve the soaking liquid as well.

Melt the butter and olive oil in a deep heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leek, parsnips, celeriac, carrot, thyme and bay leaf. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks are soft, translucent and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Then, add the broth and the soaked dried mushrooms. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to a quiet simmer.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a large, heavy skillet. When the oil is shimmering and hot, add the wild mushrooms, stirring with a wooden spoon, and allow to just lightly brown. Season with salt and pepper, then turn the heat to medium and sauté 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms are just soft and cooked through. Add the garlic and thyme and cook 1 minute more.

Add the sautéed mushrooms to the soup and allow to simmer until the parsnips, celeriac and carrot are tender, about 15 minutes or so.

Discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Purée the soup in a food processor fitted with a steel knife, a blender or even an immersion stick. Correct the seasoning and thin with the mushroom soaking liquid and/or broth, if necessary.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls. Garnish with chives and a drizzle of crème fraîche. Serve with toasted baguette slices.