Lemons — Oval Bliss

April 17, 2016

When life gives you lemons, ask what life is suggesting.
~Unknown

Sunshine globes, lemons often peak in May through August.  Along with their cousins limes, lemons munificently have flavonoids, antioxidants, oxalates, folates, and limonoids boasting anti-cancer auras and also are a sublime source of vitamin C and free radicals.  So many tidbits for you.

Plus clamorous flavors — the tartness of lemon curd with a shortbread base, then finished with averse sea salt and sugar.  Something just like Mom used to create, well except for the sea salt (but, little doubt she would adore that touch and savor).

LEMON BARS

Preheat oven to 325 F

1 1/4 C all purpose flour
1/4  C granulated sugar
3 T confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 t lemon zest
A pinch of sea salt
10 T cold unsalted butter, cold and cubed

1/2 C fresh lemon juice
2 T lemon zest, freshly grated
1/2 C granulated sugar or 1/4 each raw + granulated sugars
2 local, large eggs
3 local, large egg yolks
1 t cornstarch
6 T unsalted butter, cold and cubed

Confectioners’ sugar
Sea salt, coarse

For crust, line 9″ x 9″ heavy baking pan with parchment paper hanging over edges. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse the flour, both sugars, zest and sea salt together. Pulse or use fingers to cut butter into the flour mix until a crumbly dough forms. Press dough into papered pan with fingers and bake around 30-35 minutes, until slightly golden.

For curd, whisk together lemon juice, zest, sugar, eggs, egg yolks and cornstarch in a medium heavy saucepan. Stir in butter over medium heat, whisking frequently, until curd shows marks of whisk and bubble appears on surface, about 6 minutes.

Refrigerate in a glass bowl covered with plastic wrap until chilled.

Remove the crust and pour the curd onto the base. Return the pan to the oven and bake until curd is just set, 10-15 minutes more. Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate before cutting into bars.

Lightly sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and coarse sea salt right before serving.

Woman & A Gam of Lamb

March 26, 2016

There are no good girls gone wrong — just bad girls found out.
~Mae West

It is the day of egg dyeing, and the eve before hiding and hunting those orbs.  That paschal thing.   So, hens, as should always be revered.

Each day, our bedside table is graced with a hardback copy of Woman, An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier, the Pulitzer Prize winning author who sometimes writes for the New York Times.  Doubtfully, will it ever leave.

The volume is a searing, exuberant, captivating, guileless study of perhaps the most sublime species that has resided on this planet: women. They are such divine beings — their visuals, scents, minds, essences, intimacies, secrecy, candor, features, mischief, intricacies, enigmas, and so forth.  Damn, women are people, get it?

The book explores the anatomy of the human female biology including chromosomes, breasts, clitorises, orgasms, vaginae, uteri, ovaries, hormones, metabolism, brains, and psychologies, to name a few.  A worthy and appealing read.

ROAST LEG OF LAMB

1/3 C fennel seeds, roasted briefly under gentle heat, then ground

1 large lamb roast, bone-in leg (usually 8 lbs or so)
12 Italian anchovies packed in jars in olive oil, drained
4 T Dijon mustard

6 fresh rosemary sprig leaves, plus more for garnish
6 thyme sprigs, plus more for garnish
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

6-8 oz unsalted butter (1 stick or less), softened to room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper
1-2 fresh lemons, cut in half
1 plump, fresh garlic clove, cut transversely

2 C dry white wine, plus more dollops for jus

Heat oven to 425 F

Use a paring knife to make about a dozen incisions, each about 2″ deep, through the fat that covers the top of the meat. Using a blender or processor fitted with a steel blade, blend the anchovies and the mustard, the rosemary and thyme leaves and the garlic cloves into a chunky paste. Using fingers, press paste deeply into cuts.

Mix the butter and ground fennel seeds into a paste. Smear this mixture all over the surface of the roast. Season liberally with freshly ground black pepper (do not salt given the anchovies and dijon).

Place the lamb on a rack in a roasting pan, fat side up, and squeeze the lemon halves+ over. Place the sliced garlic in and pour the wine around the roast into the pan.

Roast 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 F and roast until internal temperature reaches 130 F (for medium rare — about another 60-90 minutes). Throughout the cooking process, baste every 15 minutes or so with the wine and drippings in the pan, adding more wine as needed to keep from scorching.

Then remove pan, take rack from the pan, and let the roast rest on the rack for at least 15 minutes or so, tented with foil. The lamb will continue to cook, and the internal temperature will rise to about 140-145 degrees.

To make pan sauce, remove a few tablespoons of fat by tipping the pan and spooning off the top layer. Put the pan over medium heat until the liquid simmers. Taste and whisk in more wine, about 1/4 cup each time, until the consistency is to your liking. But, do not let the mixture become thick or syrupy — it should remain a jus.

Carve lamb into 1/2″ slices, vertically and arrange on a platter, decorated with rosemary and thyme sprigs. Serve jus in a boat with a deep spoon.

You’re enough to try the patience of an oyster.
~Lewis Carroll

Since the early 17th century, the sometimes covert, yet prestigious l’Académie Française has been printing official dictionaries and regulating the French language which was not really unified until around World War I (1914-1918). Before the early 20th century tribal, provincial, and regional tongues and texts flourished in France. Recently, l’Académie proposed some spelling reforms (les réformes orthographes) by barring some uses of the beloved circumflex (accent circonflexe) sometimes dubbed “le petit chapeau” or Asian conical hat that adorns the top of certain French nouns and verbs.  Indicated by the sign ^, it is placed over a vowel or syllable, almost giving a poetic flair to the word, sentence, paragraph via pronouncement — even meaning (e.g., mûr “mature” mur “wall”).

These spelling changes were approved by the body in 1990 and then promptly forgotten or ignored.  Apparently, very few took notice then.

The notion was to generally ban circumflexes over the letters “i” and “u” (e.g., boite and brule) with some exceptions.   This linguistic move met with genuine public outrage, sober and sometimes furious discourse and even a popular movement called je suis circonflexe. One of the phrases often heard in the uproar was nivellement par le bas (“a dumbing down”) by removing the circumflex from certain letters.    The purist pressure mounted until l’Académie rendered its proposals for circumflex omissions optional.

The accent circonflexe is one of the five diacritical marks used in the French language and can also be seen in Turkish, Afrikaans, Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Portuguese, Swedish and Vietnamese writings.  The other four diacritics in French written script, besides l’accent circonflexe, are l’accent aigu (marché), l’accent grave (très), la cedille (garçon) and le tréma (aïoli).

Circumflexes are applied in the “nous” (we) and “vous” (you) passé simple (simple past) conjugations of all verbs, and in the “il” (he) conjugation of the imparfait subjonctif (subjunctive imperfect) of all verbs.  Over time, silent letters were also dropped so those lost souls (especially “s’s”) have a circumflex over the preceding vowel even though the missing letter reappears in some derivative words (e.g., forêt vs forestier).  Some 2,000 words utilize circumflexes in the French language (about 3% of the native lexicon).

Even though the school texts make the circumflex spelling changes discretional, it appears that le petit chapeau may still reign and will still sit atop such words (letters) among so many others:

âcre, âge, âme, apparaître, arrêt, bâtard, bâton, bête, bien-être , bientôt, brûlée, bûcher, château, connaître, côté, coût, crêpe, croître, croûte, dépêche, dîner, diplôme, disparaître, enchaîner, enchâsser, enquêter, être, extrême, faîte, fantôme, gâteau, gîte, goûter, hâte, honnête, hôpital, hôte, hôtel, huîtres, impôt, intérêt, jeûne, maître, mâture, même, mûr, nôtre, pâté, pâtissière, pêche, plutôt, poêle, prêt, prôse, prôtet, ragoût, reconnaître, rêves, rôti, symptômes, tâches, tantôt, tempête, tête, théâtre, traître, vêtements, vôtre, forêt, fraîche, fenêtre…

This is by no means a final adieu.  There is little doubt circumflexes will be imposed here — both are correct, n’est-ce pas (avec ou sans)?

OYSTERS ON THE GRILL WITH HERB BUTTER

16 T unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temperature or nearby
4 T fresh herbs, minced (tarragon leaves and stripped, cored fennel bulbs)
2 t lemon zest, freshly grated
2 T lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1-2 t cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 dozen (24 or so) fresh, “local” oysters

Place the softened butter and the remaining herbs, lemon and spices to a medium size bowl. Use a large spoon to cream (or place into a food processor fitted with a metal blade) the ingredients together until well blended. Serve immediately or preferably store in the frig.

If you save the butter for later — which likely should be done — wrap it up in plastic wrap in the shape of a log and refrigerate overnight until stiff. To use, just unwrap and slice discs from the chilled butter log and bring to room temperature on waxed or parchment paper.  Then, place on warm oysters and then re-grill briefly, as below.

Place the oysters on a medium high grill, flat side up.  (Remember to hold your open palm about 3″ above the hot grate, and medium high is reached when the pain demands you retract it in 2-3 seconds.)

Cover with hood and cook until they open, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the oysters to a platter, carefully keeping the liquor inside. Remove the top shells and loosen the oysters from the bottom shells. Top each oyster with a pad of compound butter and return the oysters in their bottoms to the grill. Again, cover the grill and cook until the butter is mostly melted and the oysters are hot, about 1 minute.

STEAMED OYSTERS WITH WHITE WINE & HERBS

2 dozen (24 or so) “local” oysters
Equal amounts of fish or chicken stock and water

1 C dry white wine
1/2 C tarragon leaves
1/2 C thyme leaves
2 t cayenne pepper

Bring water and stock to a boil in a heavy stock pot. Place oysters, wine and herbs in a steaming tray until done and shells start to open, about 3-5 minutes — quickly pull them off the heat and shuck.

A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
~A.P. Herbert

Merguez, which has Bedouin and then Tunisian and Moroccan antecedents, has some assorted Arabic spellings:  (mirkas (ﻤﺮﻛﺲ), pl. marākis (ﻤﺮﺍﻛﺲ),mirkās (ﻤﺮﻛﺎﺱ), markas (ﻤﺭﻛﺲ) and mirqāz (ﻤﺮﻗﺲ).  After the French invasion, occupation and colonization of the Maghreb (“sunset” or “west”) which are the lands west of Egypt in coastal North Africa, the lamb/mutton or beef piquante sausage naturally spread to France and elsewhere.  The Maghreb was cordoned off from the rest of the continent by the immense Sahara Desert and peaks of the Atlas Mountains also their ports, often built by Phoenicians, look out on the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.  The area was conquered and settled by the Spanish, Italians, French, Arabs, Ottomans, Vandals, Carthaginians, Romans, Phoenicians, Berbers, Islamics, Turks, to name a few at differing times.  Sadly, there is nothing like conquest to make cuisine sublime.

Merquez is often served grilled, with tajines and stews, next to couscous or lentils, and in baguettes or buns with pommes frites — now, the latter is a scrumptious charcuterie and street food both.

Not that there exist constraints or restraints by any of these culinary means — with the exception of personal imagination.

A must.

MERGUEZ

1/4 C+ extra virgin olive oil
4 pounds spinach, stems removed, washed and dried well

2 medium onions peeled and cut into small cubes
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 T fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 T harissa
Freshly ground black pepper
2 t  quatre epices (recipe follows)

2 C water
2 C chicken stock
A splash of dry white wine
1/2 lb dried garbanzo or cannellini beans, drained

2 lbs fresh merguez sausage
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook, stirring throughout, until all the spinach has wilted and browned slightly and all the liquid has evaporated, about 20-30 minutes.

Add the onions, garlic, mint, cilantro, harissa, black pepper, and quatre epices and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Pour in 4 cups water and stock and a dollop of dry white wine to the mix above, then add the garbanzos or cannellini beans. Stir, bring to a quiet simmer, and cover. Braise gently in the oven for 2 hours, or until the beans are nearly tender.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 T extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sear the merguez on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain well.

Stir the lemon juice into the beans and place the seared merguez on top. Cover and continue to braise until the beans are tender and the sausage is cooked through, about 30 minutes more. Season with salt to taste.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Use as needed, then store remainder in a tight, glass container in the cupboard.

Bon appetit!

To live is the rarest thing in the world.  Most people exist, that is all.
~Oscar Wilde

So sorry for those already in the know — but for those who have yet to discern, here is a little primer, my good and yours too.  But, apologies to the unfamiliar also.  These are not nonpologies without contrition, as we so often hear. They are true sorries.

Guanciale is an Italian salted and cured (not smoked) meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks whose moniker is derived from guancia, which likewise means “cheek.”  A specialty of Umbria and Lazio, its texture is more docile than pancetta, yet it is silky and has just a slightly more rigid flavor.  It is often cured for a week, then hung to dry for about three weeks or so.  One of those nose to tail things.  Often used in egg or cream sauces with pasta, guanciale is projected below with green tomatoes, et al.

Sublimely blissful grub.

CHICKEN WITH GREEN TOMATOES, CHILES & GUANCIALE

3-4 lbs bone in chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2 t or so broken oregano for the skin side

2 bay leaves

1-2 T extra virgin olive oil
8 ozs guanciale, diced

4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 good quality anchovy fillets
1/2 t red pepper flakes
1 jar green tomatoes and chiles

8 ozs mozzarella cut into pieces
1 C high quality olives, black and green (warmed)
Lemons, quartered

Basil leaves, freshly and roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 400 F

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.

In a large oven proof, heavy skillet, heat oil over medium high until shimmering. Add guanciale and cook, stirring frequently, until just slightly browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer guanciale to a paper towel lined plate.

Add chicken pieces to skillet and sear, until nicely browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large paper toweled plate. Pour off most all of the oil, keeping some.

Add garlic, anchovy and red pepper flakes to skillet and fry 1 minute. Stir in green tomatoes and chiles and cook, breaking up green tomatoes and chiles with a wooden spatula, until the sauce thickens somewhat, about 10 minutes.

Return chicken, green tomatoes and chiles and bay leaves to skillet and transfer to oven and cook, uncovered, until chicken is no longer pink and runs somewhat yellow to a fork, about 30 minutes.

Scatter mozzarella over chicken, tomatoes and chiles and adjust oven temperature to broil along with olives. Return skillet to oven and broil until cheese is melted and bubbling, about 2-3 minutes.

Garnish with cooked guanciale, olives, quartered lemons and juice, and roughly chopped basil before serving.

Soul satisfying — sort of a pizza without dough, although you could serve a flatbread or some form of cooked dough, underneath.

 

 

Fools make feasts and wise men eat them.
~Benjamin Franklin

Provence — a poetic, mystical southern land which extends from the French Alps on the upper edge, bordered by the bank of the lower Rhône River on the west, abutting the Italian border on the lower east and finally falling into the Mediterranean Sea to the south.

Where villages-perchés seem to cling to bluffs, where marchés quietly demand that you explore serendipitously, and where the sun kisses you throughout the year. The clarity of light, the luminosity is nearly unsurpassed…not to mention the sprawling vistas, microclimates, cobblestone streets, earth tones tinted in brilliant ochres, sparse yet gentle landscapes, lavender fields, from squat olive to narrow pine and cypress trees, an achingly azure shimmering sea with pristine shores and grottoes. There is a feeling of isolation there. An evocative feast for the senses.

Grande destinations include Nice, Cannes, Antibes, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Carcassone, Gordes, Arles, La Camargue, Eze, Grasse, St. Tropez, Cassis, St. Raphael, La Luberon, Vence (to name a few). Remember, the papal capital was in Avignon and seven successive popes were housed in France, not Rome. Provence only joined France in 1860, so think Italy too.

Then again, there are some places like the Marseille ghetto with its infamous high rise slums and notorious drug related violence and gang wars. Best avoid (or repair) those.

POULET PROVENCAL et SALADE DE MESCLUN

6-8 bone in, skin on, chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
All purpose flour
3 T olive oil
3 T unsalted butter

Herbes de Provence (see below)
1-2 lemons, quartered
10 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled
12 Niçoise olives, depending upon size
4-6 medium shallots, peeled and halved
1/2 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine
1/4 C pastis

1-2 T fresh local honey

8 sprigs of thyme, for serving on each plate

Preheat oven to 400 F

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Put the flour in a shallow bowl, and lightly dredge the chicken, shaking the pieces to remove excess flour.

Heat and swirl the oil and butter in a large roasting pan on the stove, and place the floured chicken in the pan, skin side up. Season the chicken on the skin side with the herbes de Provence. Arrange the lemons, garlic cloves, olives, and shallots around the chicken, and then add the chicken stock, white wine and pastis to the roasting pan.

Put the loaded roaster in the oven, and cook for 25-30 minutes, and baste several times with pan juices. Continue roasting and basting for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, adding the honey scantily during the last 15 minutes in a slow drizzle — until the chicken is quite crisp and the meat shows yellow juices when pricked. Allow to rest for about 8 minutes before serving.

Serve on plates or on a platter with warmed pan juices spooned over the chicken, garnished with thyme sprigs. Present with a mesclun salad with blueberries, French feta cheese, hazelnuts (June 28, 2010) and champagne vinaigrette (see below again).

Herbes de Provence

No doubt you can find herbes de Provence with your spice monger or even at the market. But, you can always and ever easily prepare your own.

3 T dried thyme
2 T dried savory
1 T dried oregano
3 t dried rosemary
2 t dried marjoram
1 T dried lavender flowers

Combine herbs, and store in an airtight container at cool, room temperature.

Champagne Vinaigrette

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t local honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a glass 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 whatever greens (ideally mesclun) you are serving.

As you may recall, mesclun is a varied amalgam of dainty salad leaves which originated in Provence.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.
~Albert Einstein

So, tomorrow is Pi Day which will not happen again until 2115 — and the date also just so coincides with the birthday of Albert himself. Pi (the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet) represents a mathematical constant, namely the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter or approximately 3.14159265 (3.14 for short). The diameter of a circle is the distance from edge to edge, measuring straight through the center point, and the circumference is the distance around the circle. By measuring circular objects over time, it has always turned out that the distance around a circle is a tad more than 3x the width.

Ergo: pi equals the circumference divided by the diameter (π = c/d). Conversely, the circumference is equal to pi times the diameter (c = πd).

Being a constant number, pi applies to circles and spheres of any size. To Pi aficionados, this number has even been calculated to over a trillion digits beyond the decimal point, and this irrational number happens to continue infinitely without settling into a repeating pattern.

So, join this zany worldwide celebration of all mathematical enigmas by creating and relishing something round.

BLUEBERRY PIE (PI)

Dough (Pâte Fine Sucrée)
2 egg yolks
6 T ice water

2 1/2 C all purpose flour
1/4 t salt
3 T granulated white sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into 1″ bits

Filling
4 C fresh, plump blueberries
1/2 C granulated white sugar
1 T ground cinnamon
2 gratings fresh nutmeg
Small dash, vanilla extract
2 T cornstarch
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 T lemon zest

Unsalted butter bits, chilled and cut into 1″ pieces

Egg Wash
1 fresh local egg, beaten with 1 T water

Gently whisk the yolk with the water until it is well blended.

Place the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10-15 seconds. Pour water and yolk mixture through the feed tube until the dough just holds together when pinched. If necessary, add more water. Do not process more than 30 seconds. Knead the dough for less than one minute and your work surface and then gather into a ball.

(Alternatively — place the flour, salt, and sugar in a round bowl and combine. Add the butter and work with your hands, mashing it through your fingers to have everything blend together. It will form into small lumps or a cornmeal like consistency after 1 or 2 minutes. Pour the yolk mixture into the round bowl and mix vigorously with your fingers until all the ingredients are assembled together into a round ball.)

Divide the dough in half, flattening each half into a thick round disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour before using. This will chill the butter and relax the gluten in the flour.

After chilling, unwrap and place one dough on a floured surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with flour too. Roll the pastry with light pressure, from the center out. To prevent the pastry from sticking to the counter and to ensure uniform thickness, add some flour and keep lifting up and turning the pastry a quarter turn as you roll from the center of the pastry outwards. Turn the dough over once or twice during the rolling process until it is about 11″ in diameter and less than 1/4″ thick. Fold the dough in half and gently transfer to a 9″ pie pan by draping it over the rolling pin, then moving it onto the plate and unrolling it. Once in the plate, press the dough firmly into the bottom and sides of the pan. Trim the excess dough to about 1/2″ all around the dish, then tuck it under itself around the edge of the plate. Brush off any excess flour and trim the edges of the pastry to fit the pie pan. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.

Then, remove the second dough from the refrigerator and roll it into a 12″ circle (also think about a lattice top). Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

In a small round bowl mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cornstarch, lemon juice and zest. Place the blueberries in a large round bowl. Add the mixture to the blueberries and gently toss to combine.

Remove the crusts from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for a few minutes so they can become pliable. Carefully pour the blueberry filling into the chilled bottom pie crust. Strew the butter pieces over the blueberry filling. Moisten the edges of the pie shell with a little water and then place the top crust over the blueberries. Tuck any excess pastry under the bottom crust and then crimp or flute the edges using your fingers. Brush the top (or lattice) with the egg wash and cut slits from the center of the pie out towards the edge of the pie to allow steam to escape. You may wish to cover edge with 2″ strip of foil to prevent excessive browning. Cover the circular pie with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill while the oven is preheated.

Preheat the oven to 425 F

Place an oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or sheet pan on the rack while it preheats.

Set the round pie on the baking stone or sheet pan lined with parchment paper or foil about 2/3 of the way down. Bake the pie for about 20 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Continue to bake the pie for about 35-45 minutes or until the crust is a deep golden brown color and the juices are bubbly and thick. If the edges of the pie are browning too much during baking, cover with foil.

Remove the round blueberry pie from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 2 or so hours before slicing. Resist cutting the pie immediately and then serve warm or at room temperature with round globes of vanilla ice cream.

It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.
~André Gide

A brief obit on courtship.

One sad day, Dating, a longtime mate who has been fighting an insidious illness for a decade, quietly passed almost overnight. Her closest friends whispered that the cause was cancerous by nature. She had been a tireless advocate of couplings for centuries, merging innumerable sometimes seemingly mismatched relationships, many who went on to be life long partners and others who did not quite reach that supposed paradigm. She encouraged couples to address each other directly, to communicate face à face, and openly share interests and intimacies without codes, pretenses, online personas or flat screens. Dating would not have countenanced a couple strolling through the park, engaged only by their screens and not one another, texting whomever else about whatever. With Dating, sensuous trysts steeped in droll wit, mutual charm, eager eyes, seductive words, and even homey sociability were urged. Ever exploring one anothers’ minds and bodies, exalting each other’s uniqueness, while bearing blemishes and flaws over time, became the standards. That was soulful sychronicity in full bloom.

While not fully expected, others subverted the rules of courtship rather recently, sadly causing Dating’s descent and demise. The disease process spread more rapidly than expected. What with texting, e-mails, social media, smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, online dating sites, and instant messages, Dating stood little chance in her later years. Narcissitic texters, bizarre checklisters and flyspecking online data collectors, especially, would lead to her hastened departure. The now obsolete traditional dinner + movie was replaced by online liaisons, non-dates, hookups and hanging out in groups, small and large, sometimes known and more often unknown. Commitment free flings, screen only paramours, and ambiguous dalliances that leave both halves unhappy, sexually unfulfilled, and confused about intimacy have now become all too common. We lament that there were no simple solutions Dating could have offered nor that she could have proposed before her untimely end — other than to revert to the romantic days of yore. Without her, the courtship landscape may indeed prove bleak.

Oh, we will miss the furtive and lingering glances, flirtations, seductions, angst and joys of romance, madame Dating. So many of us still embrace you in your afterlife.

CHICKEN WITH DATES, FENNEL AND LEMON

4 chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ras al hanout
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter

1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, peeled and thinly sliced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Hefty pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
1 T ras el hanout
2 cinnamon sticks

2 preserved lemons
1+ C chicken broth

1 1/2 C pitted dates
2 t ground cinnamon
3 T honey

Sesame seeds, toasted
Cilantro leaves, chopped

Season chicken with ras al hanout, salt and pepper. In a large, heavy skillet add the olive oil and butter over medium high heat. Sauté the chicken until browned, about 5 minutes per side, and set aside in a baking dish tented with foil. Then, add the onions, fennel, garlic, saffron, ras al hanout, and cinnamon sticks. Cook over medium to medium high heat for about 8 minutes. Add the chicken broth and lemons and increase the heat just to bring the liquid to a gentle boil and then promptly lower to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is done and the sauce reduced some, about 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile place the dates, cinnamon and honey in a heavy saucepan. Stir gently to combine, then simmer over medium heat until the dates are tender and the sauce is syrupy, about 5-10 minutes.

Spoon the dates and syrup over the chicken and friends, and then garnish first with sesame seeds and then cilantro.

Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
~Marcel Proust

Another remembrance rekindled.  This time from La Table de Fès, an inauspicious restaurant morocain on la rue Sainte-Beuve in Paris’ 6eme arrondissement, festooned with a painted teal & white facade and a curtained, rather dark interior with woodwork and simple white clothed tables.  A room teeming with the aromas of intoxicating Moroccan spices.  The chicken tajine with preserved lemons, braised vegetables, and couscous there were beyond superlative, nearly peerless.   In this quaint haunt, the quirky plump proprietress took us on an engaging imaginary voyage over Moroccan landscapes by way of our plates.  While the 20eme is home to many north African immigrants and chez Omar is considered quite branché (“in”), fond memories of sublime food were born at La Table de Fès.  Not just a place, but a new way of seeing.

Little doubt that I will fail at replicating this enchanting dish, but here goes…

CHICKEN TAJINE WITH PRESERVED LEMONS & OLIVES

1 medium cinnamon stick, broken some
1 t whole black peppercorns
1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 t whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
1 t red pepper flakes

1/2 T turmeric
1/2 T paprika dulce or agridulce

3 T+ extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 C fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron
4-6 chicken leg-thigh quarters, trimmed of excess fat

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced
2 preserved lemons (see below)
3/4 C green and red olives, pitted and sliced
1/2 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained
1 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine

Toast cinnamon stick, peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom pods, and pepper flakes in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. Allow to reach room temperature, then in a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Place in a small bowl and add turmeric and paprika and mix well.

In a large baking dish or casserole, mix the oil, spices, garlic, ginger, cilantro, bay leaves and saffron. Add chicken, rubbing, massaging the marinade over all the pieces. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or preferably overnight.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and reserve marinade and bring to room temperature. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or tagine or large casserole over medium high heat add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Put in chicken pieces until lightly brown on both sides, about 5 minutes each. Add onions and cook until translucent and just starting to lightly brown, about 4 minutes. Scoop out flesh and discard and then rinse the preserved lemons. Cut peel into strips and add to pan. Add reserved marinade, olives, currants, chicken stock, and wine. Cover and cook over medium heat until chicken is done, about 30-35 minutes. Discard bay leaf and taste to adjust seasoning.

Place chicken on a platter or individual plates. Spoon juices with the preserved lemon, olives, and onions over chicken and serve accompanied by plain couscous or couscous with apricots (see below).

Preserved Lemons

6 lemons, scrubbed and cleaned
3 C+ sea salt
Cold water

Fill the bottom of a large, hinged glass jar with 1 cup of salt. Slice off the end of each lemon.  Cut the lemons into quarters lengthwise twice, but do not slice all the way through, so the lemon remains intact on one end. Open up the lemon and pack copious amounts of salt inside. Arrange three of the lemons on top of the first layer of salt and then add a second cup of salt. Add the last three lemons and then pour in the last cup of salt on top of the lemons. Press down the fruit so the juices release and then fill the rest of the jar with water just until it covers the lemons. Tightly close the jar and store in a cool, dark place for at least one month until the lemon peel has softened. Occasionally turn the jar upside down and gently shake so the salt redistributes.

When ready to use, just remove the pulp and use the peel only. Make sure to rinse off the almost translucent peel to remove excess salt before adding to the dish. Preserved lemons can be stored for up to 4 months in the refrigerator.

Couscous with Apricots

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium yellow onion, peeled and minced

1 T turmeric
1 t coriander, toasted & ground

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, slightly simmering
1/2 t lemon zest

2 T green onions, sliced
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 C whole almonds, toasted & coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until soft and translucent. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and sauté gently over low heat until slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the green onions, almonds and apricots. Fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.

The death of a parent is rarely well served by prose, essay or exalted speech. And obits never do justice. Like life, death is more the stuff of poetry with melodious cadence, dissonance, subtlety and ambiguity. That big visual born of few, yet potent, words that link pasts and presents.

My father was admittedly no wordsmith. He was more a man of carefully metered words and most times an avid listener. He carried a certain grace and charm, a souplesse so when he moved, when he spoke, and even in his eyes there was quiet meaning that seemed as smooth as wet sea stones. While Dad had the power of a raging bull under his skin, outwardly he was poised and glib. Sometimes he was somber, but more often he sported an impish grin, raised brow, dancing look, and always greeting with that crushing handshake. There were diversions along the way of course, some sweet and some not. Nothing is perfect, and none of us are infallible. But, that was the very humor and sadness of the humanity he embraced.

Dad had an abiding love for the endless sea and the eternal pulse of waves. The ocean was his vast cathedral. There he was taught, and there he often returned to discover. So, I felt compelled to give way to a real poet, Pablo Neruda:

Here I came to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back,
its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave,
and every day on the balcony of the sea,
wings open, fire is born,
and everything is blue again like morning.

Kiss-principled, pan sautéed sweetbreads. Something akin to what he savored on some weekend mornings as a child.

SWEETBREADS WITH LEMONS & CAPERS

1 1/2 lbs sweetbreads, preferably veal
Whole milk

Sea salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns
Cold water

Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 t dried thyme
All purpose flour

3 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 C dry white wine
Juice of 2-3 lemons
2 T capers, rinsed

Capers, rinsed or
Chopped tarragon

Briefly rinse sweetbreads under cold water. Place them in a glass bowl, cover with milk, and allow to soak several hours. Remove the sweetbreads, discarding the milk. Using a sharp paring knife and fingers, remove excess membrane or fat. Do not overly obsess about peeling, and do not fret if the sweetbreads separate some into sections. Rinse, pat dry and set aside.

In a heavy large saucepan filled 3/4 full, add a generous pinch of salt, lemon juice, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring the water to a boil, add the sweetbreads, and poach for about 5 minutes. Remove the sweetbreads and briefly plunge them into an ice bath, then drain promptly and dry thoroughly.

Line a small sheet pan with a kitchen towel and place the sweetbreads on the towel in a single layer. Fold the towel over them to cover, then place a same-sized sheet pan on top. Weigh the top pan down with whatever works–a brick, cans of tomatoes, a hand weight. Place in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove from the frig, place sweetbreads on a large platter and bring to room temperature. Season with salt, pepper and thyme and dust in flour, lightly coating on all sides. Melt butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over moderate heat until bubbling but not browning. Sauté sweetbreads until nicely golden brown, turning once. Place the sautéed sweetbreads on a platter or baking dish and set aside, tenting loosely with foil to keep warm.

Deglaze the pan with wine and just bring to a quiet boil, scraping to remove any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Lower to a gentle simmer, add the sweetbreads and finish until just cooked through, about 5 minutes, turning as needed. During the last minute or so, add the lemon juice and capers and cook until sauce has slightly thickened.

Plate sweetbreads, drizzle with sauce, then garnish with capers or chopped tarragon.