No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy. It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.
~Denis Diderot, Encyclopedia (1751-1765)

So the tale goes…the potato, solanum tuberosum, a starchy, herbaceous, tuberous crop from the perennial nightshade family indigenous to the Andes was brought from the New World to Europe by curious Spanish mariners around the second half of the 16th century. The origins of the potato can be traced to the highlands of the Andes mountains on the border between Bolivia and Peru around 8,000 BCE. The beginnings were far from humble as the Andes are the lengthiest mountain range on earth running some 5,500 miles with peaks exceeding 22,000 feet — an often harsh territory where temperatures fluctuate wildly, and which proves seismically intense, rift with geographic faults, earthquakes, mudslides, and often active volcanoes.

Somehow, the potato made it to French shores and burrowed inland, introduced to the Franche-Comté, the Vosges of Lorraine and Alsace. At first, the French were so suspicious that in 1748 the government issued an edict forbidding their growth, as it was foolishly rumored that potatoes caused leprosy in humans. Later, the tuber was allowed to be used only as animal fodder.

Enter Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), a trained French pharmacist and veteran of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) having been captured by the Prussians no less than five times. To most in North America this conflict is known only as the French and Indian War, but the strife was quite global in scope affecting Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain and their respective overseas colonial territories on the other. In the end, Britain established as a distinct colonial power, with control over India and North America seemingly secured, while Prussia emerged as predominant force in Europe, and the preponderant voice within Germany. While imprisoned, Parmentier quietly subsisted on potatoes which led to his devotion to the spud as a staple for his homeland.

It should be remembered that regional and national French famines had become routine in the preceding centuries. The country simply could not feed itself. So, soon after he emerged from Prussian prison, Parmentier exalted the potato, laboriously aspiring to scrub the tot’s bad pub. He wanted potatoes to become an integral part of the French food supply, a staple. He went on a barnstorming tour of sorts hosting dinners at which potato dishes were featured prominently and guests included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  In Examen chymique des pommes de terres (1774), Parmentier touted the potato’s prodigious nutritional prowess.  About this time, some say that Marie Antoinette even adorned her hair with potato blossoms while her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole as part of an attempt to persuade French farmers to plant and French diners to consume S.tuberosum. Other members of royalty and aristocratic wannabes followed suit, strutting about in tuberous bouquets. Finally, the Paris Faculty of Medicine declared that potatoes were edible.

This opened the French culinary sluices with such classics as pommes Anna, gratin dauphinois, pommes de terre sarladaises, pommes aligot(e), pommes de terre boulangère, pommes purée, etc. A recipe for pommes duchesse even appeared in a cookbook, La Nouvelle Cuisinière Bourgeoise in 1817.

(M. Parmentier was entombed in the renowned Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, and both a Parisian avenue in the 10th and 11th arrondissements and a station on the Paris Métro bear his name.)

Pommes Duchesse are simply an exalted spud rendition. They are dollops of mashed potatoes with butter, eggs, cream and nutmeg that are shaped in a way that resembles meringues. The textural variances are sublime. Once baked, the interiors of the potatoes remain soft and creamy, while the edges of the contoured tops become crispy.

POMMES DUCHESSE

2 1/2 lb russet potatoes

4 T unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks, plus 1 egg mixed with 1 t heavy cream, lightly beaten
1/2 t freshly grated nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 eggs, whisked

Preheat oven to 400 F

Using a fork, prick potatoes all over and place on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 1-1 1/2 hours, allow to cool, then peel and pass through a food mill or ricer.

Mix potatoes, butter, yolks, egg, cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper in a glass or metal bowl and transfer to a piping bag fitted with a 3/4″ star tip. On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and working in a tight circular motion, pipe twelve 2 1/2″ in diameter rosettes — first fill the pastry bag in one corner with the riced potato mixture to squeeze out any air bubbles, while exerting steady pressure from the top with one hand while guiding the flow of the mixture with the other make a solid foundation, then carefully pipe a tight spiral, build a cone shaped mound and finish with a slightly pointed tip until each potato is about 2″ in height.

Brush with egg and then bake until golden brown, about 40–45 minutes.

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Of all smells, bread; of all tastes, salt.
~George Herbert, English poet

You might guess that I purr at the layers of egg in this dish. Audibly so. Egg bread, egg custard, and poached eggs mated with a medley of mushrooms and cheese.

Brioche is a soft enriched bread, whose high egg and butter content make it lusciously rich and tender. It shows a dark, golden, and flaky crust from an egg wash applied just after proofing.

First appearing in print in the early 15th century, this bread is believed to have evolved from a traditional Norman recipe, pain brié. Some even posit that brioche has Roman origins, as a similar sweet bread is made in Romania (sărălie).

In his autobiography entitled Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau notes that an unnamed “great princess” is said to have commented about starving peasants: S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche (“If they have no bread, let them eat cake”).

Although there is no record of her having uttered these words, this callous aside is often mistakenly attributed to Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. No doubt her frivolity and extravagances in a time of dire financial straits and xenophobia played a role. But, the comely teenage Austrian Archduchess (soon to named Madame Déficit) had yet to even arrive in Versailles when Rousseau’s book was published. To cast further doubt, Rousseau had even mentioned the same phrase in a letter in 1737 — a full eighteen years before Marie Antoinette had even been born. Most historians suggest that either Rousseau was actually referring to Marie Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, or that he altogether invented an anecdote which has little source support.

Sound familiar? Seems strikingly similar to a recently published memoir, Decision Points, which is rife with mistruths and spins. Ironically, GW was just down the street peddling signed copies of his Alice in Wonderland remembrances of things past. While the mollycoddled man — who eerily admitted “I miss being pampered” during his days at the White House — was jovially exalting his exploits in a cozy, warm chapel, others were huddling and shivering in the cold nearby at the somber funeral of another fallen member of the 101st Airborne.

Befitting a bread, the etymology of the word brioche is hotly contested. It is believed to be derived from the Norman verb brier (an old form of broyer, “to grind, pound”) used in the sense of “to knead dough.” The root word, bhreg or brehhan (“to break”), is thought to be of Germanic origin

BREAD PUDDING WITH MUSHROOMS, GRUYERE & POACHED EGGS

1 lb. loaf brioche bread, cut into 1″ cubes
2 C whole milk
2 C heavy whipping cream
6 fresh eggs
Slight drizzle of white truffle oil
4 thyme sprigs, stemmed and leaves chopped

1 shallot, peeled and minced
2 C morel mushrooms, sliced
2 C crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 C shittake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
2 pinches of dried herbes de provence

4 C gruyère or comté cheese, freshly grated, divided
Sea salt and freshly grated black pepper

6 fresh eggs
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Parmigiano-reggianno, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 350 F

Bread Pudding
In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, cream and eggs. Season with salt and pepper and mix in the cubed brioche, truffle oil, and chopped thyme leaves. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, sauté the shallots for a minute or so. Then add the morels, shittakes, criminis, and herbes de provence. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Place in a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. Add half of the gruyère cheese to the brioche mixture, then stir in the mushrooms and shallots.

Pour the bread pudding mixture into a deep sided baking dish or casserole. Strew with the remaining gruyère cheese. Season with salt and pepper and bake until puffy and golden brown on top, about 45 minutes. Allow to rest, tented with foil, while poaching the eggs.

Poached Eggs
Fill a large, heavy skillet deep enough to cover the eggs with water. Bring to a simmer, and add the white wine vinegar. Crack each egg into a shallow bowl or saucer to assure they are not broken. Then, using a slotted spoon, spin the boiling water into a sort of vortex. Once the water is spinning rapidly, gently drop the egg from the bowl in the center of the whirlpool, where it will spin around and coat the yolk in a ball of egg white. Cook until the eggs are barely set, about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs, draining well with a slotted spoon and dab the bottom with paper towels to dry.

On each plate, top a serving of bread pudding with a poached egg and then a fresh scant grating of parmigiano-reggianno.

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
it’s always our self we find in the sea.

~e.e. cummings

Escapist fare on a bleak winter day—in the cozy confines of the kitchen, transport yourself to the sun, sand and azure sea of the French West Indies without airfare or hotel.

My young wandering gnome of a son is going to St. Barths for spring break, so I could not help but reminisce about my torrid affaire there with dainty, yet spicy, accras. Now, this is not meant to slight you or cause jealousy, Mme. boudin noir, as our liaisons there were equally ardent. And both of you cavorting on my plate while sharing a viognier or Côtes de Provence rosé overlooking that seductive blue, was resplendent, almost sacrosanct. Spicy, white hot indulgence with curled toes in the sand.

St. Barthélemy (a/k/a St. Barts, St. Barth, St. Barths), an exquisite volcanic speck of some 8 square idyllic miles (ironically contrasted with the 8 square epically demonic miles of Iwo Jima in early 1945), was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and was named after his brother Bartolomeo. The native Caribs, who called the island Ouanalao, ferociously resisted European attempts to settle on the island. In 1648, a colonization foray was made by French settlers sailing from nearby St. Kitts. Several years later, a raid by angry Caribs destroyed the settlement, killing all the invaders. The victims’ heads were mounted on poles lining Lorient beach to discourage others with similar notions.

Around 1660, a second attempt was made to invade and settle the island, this time by French mariners from Normandy and Brittany. Unlike its predecessor, this colony survived and prospered.

The island became a part of the France realm and an archipelago of another French leeward island, Guadeloupe. But, in 1784, the French King Louis XVI ceded St. Barths to the Swedish King Gustaf III in exchange for warehouse and trading rights in Gôteburg. The king dubbed the capital Gustavia, laid out and paved streets, built three forts, and turned the community into a thriving free port. There are still reminders of Swedish rule—such as the capital city (Gustavia), the duty free status, several buildings, a cemetery, assorted street names, and the remains of forts.

In the 19th century, numerous misfortunes including hurricanes, droughts, yellow fever epidemics, and a ravaging fire befell the island. Sweden sold the now burdensome island back to France in 1878 for 320,000 francs. Provisions of this treaty required the island remain duty free and that the population never pay taxes.

After World War II, France reorganized its former colonies and St. Barths became a sous-préfecture (district) of Guadeloupe that is now a Département d’Outre Mer (Overseas Territory). It was not until 2003 that the population voted in favor of “independence.” Since 2007, the islands of St. Barthélemy and St. Martin have been governed under Collectivités d’Outre Mer status.

The first air service came to St. Barthélemy in the 1940s, when former mayor Remy DeHaenen discovered that he could land a small plane on the flat savanna which leads up to St. Jean beach. On one trip years ago, I had the distinct, disquieting honor of being piloted by M. DeHaenen in his later years—no seat belts and one of us seated on a wooden crate on an unnerving, almost harrowing, flight.

St. Barts remained relatively unfettered, almost undeveloped, until the last few decades of the 20th century when celebs began to escape there. But, thanks to building restrictions—no rambling high rise resorts, no casinos, no all inclusives and no golf courses—the island still maintains its quiet grace. A slice of paradise.

ACCRAS DE MORUE (COD FRITTERS)

3/4 lb salt cod
Water, for desalting
Court bouillon

4 green onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 limes, zested and juiced
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley leaves
2 t chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 habanero chile, seeded and finely chopped

1 C all purpose flour
1/2 C whole milk
2 eggs
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Canola oil, for frying

Rinse the salt cod under cold running water. Place in a large bowl and cover with cold water and then plastic wrap the bowl. Refrigerate for 24 hours, changing the water 3 times in the process until the cod is sufficiently desalted for you. Bear in mind that you can always add salt, but you cannot remove it once the dish is finished. Drain well and set aside.

In a medium heavy pan, poach the cod in gently simmering court bouillon until it flakes easily with a fork, about 12-15 minutes. Allow to cool. Remove any skin, and bones from the cooled cod, then shred it.

In a large bowl, combine the cod, onions, garlic, lime zest and juice, parsley, thyme and habanero pepper.

In another bowl, combine the flour, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Then add the eggs one at a time, and finally the milk, mixing well. It should be the consistency of thick oatmeal. Add these dry ingredients to the cod mixture. Stir well to combine.

Heat 3″ of canola oil in a heavy, deep sided pan to 375 F. Spoon out a rounded tablespoon of the batter, scrape it into the oil using another spoon and fry until golden brown and cooked, 2-3 minutes. Keep the fritters well spaced, cooking in batches. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon. Drain on a baking sheet lined with paper towels or a paper bag.

Serve with aioli, harissa or sauce chien (see below).

Court Bouillon

2 quarts water
1/4 C white wine vinegar
1 T sea salt
10 peppercorns
1 carrots sliced
1/2 onion, peeled and sliced
2 celery ribs chopped
Celery leaves, chopped
3 parsley sprigs
3 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in a heavy stock pot, bring to a boil covered. Lower heat and gently simmer 20 minutes. Strain through a colander or chinois, then add salt and pepper to taste.

Sauce Chien

1/4 C fresh chives, finely minced
2 T flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 Scotch bonnet or habanero chile, seeded and finely minced
2 t fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 shallot, peeled and finely minced
Grated zest of 1 lime
1/2 t sea salt

1/4 C boiling water

1/4 C fresh lime juice
1/3 C extra virgin olive oil

In a bowl, combine the chives, parsley, garlic, Scotch bonnet chiles (deseeded), ginger,shallot, lime zest and salt. Add the boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes. Whisk in the lime juice and oil. Whisk well.

Sauce chien comes from the French West Indies knife with a small dog engraved on the side which is used for dicing the ingredients.