Homo sapiens are the only species to suffer psychological exile.
~E.O. Wilson, myrmecologist

Perhaps, let us not eat mammals (or even fishes) today, this evening, tonight or perhaps tomorrow and well, likely even later. Our lands, seas and oceans deserve better. Moderation is always the byword.

I may be misinformed, but it seems like ants and humans are the only species that conduct warfare, even enduring certain death. Of course, it does not hurt to have the dismal trio of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld at the helm with their bellicose rhetoric. Guaranteed war in foreign lands — there is nothing like that careless and doddering blend of arrogance and ignorance. Just ask W’s dutiful own dad.

This is simple, and yet so delectable, fare.

POTATOES, ONCE AGAIN

2 lbs or so, Yukon Golds or golden butts (an intriguing irony)
Cold water, to cover
Sea salt

1/4 C or less extra virgin olive oil
3-4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2 sprigs fresh rosemary leaves, stems discarded
1-2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves, stems discarded

Chives, chopped

Bring a large pot of generously salted water place in potatoes and boil. Cook until barely fork tender, then drain through a colander.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a heavy skillet until shimmering, add minced garlic and rosemary and thyme, sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

When the garlic is barely cooked, add drained potatoes to the olive oil and smash.

Serve sprinkled with chopped fresh chives.

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Happiness can only be found if you can free yourself of all other distractions.
~Saul Bellow

Coming as little suprise, the vast majority of Americans use their computers and televisions at the same time. So, Boston College profs S. Adam Brasel and James Gips decided to study media multitasking habits. They positioned cameras to track where research subjects were gazing in order to perceive the demands and disruptions caused by frequently switching between television and computer screens. Their rather startling (not?) findings will be reported in an upcoming article in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. On average, the study vassals switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer well over 120 times every half hour. When asked, participants thought they may have averted their glances between screens only 15 times per half hour, showing a less than subtle lack of self-awareness—a universally shared human trait.

While the computer prevailed in holding individual concentration spans, neither device proved capable of gleaning the attention of study participants for very long, regardless of age. The median length of gaze lasted less than two seconds for television and less than six seconds for the computer. Have you ever tried to fully engage a serious novel with the TV blaring, even whispering, in the same room?

So, what is truly the level of comprehension among people who frequently switch their attention between devices? How do we quantify such visually tweeked cerebral contortions? Remember, the study did not even contemplate other no less dominant “time saving” stimuli: cell phone calls, endless texts to and fro, tweets, f-book posts, music, and a chiming iPad all simultaneously garnering attention from the same person. Oh, and alas let us not forget those living souls in the room who have the gall to crave live communication. Sounds like ADDHD on crack. It is no stretch to say that multi-device sensory overload and distraction enliven stress in an already stress enhanced world. What these disorienting diversions do to intimacy is for another day, but it seems sadly evident. As for effects on the details and reinvention of imagination? Unsure.

Finding solace in the kitchen can be a ceremonial escape from the day’s distractions. Hand transforming raw, solitary ingredients into a savory amalgamation of tastes, scents, textures and hues for the communal table is a focused outlet—an artful destressor of sorts. Simple or haute, cooking offers a mission, a task with a certain rhythm topped by a sense of accomplishment…a chance to impose free will and character. Throughout the coddle, what may seem mundane may prove vital. And afterwards, you relish the contentment of eating your work (with others maybe?).

It only seemed fitting to offer four doors to this post, all the while fixed on my laptop and pecking away with an Anthony Bourdain re-run and inane ads droning in the background. Scribbling here without cells, texts, tweets, tunes, radio, iPad—but, still pandering to live beings and a screen or so.

PESTO POTATO SALAD

3 lbs red potatoes, quartered

6 organic, free range eggs

1 large bunch fresh radishes, rinsed, scrubbed and thinly sliced

1 C pesto
1/2 C Dijon mustard
1/2 C capers
1/2 C pine nuts, toasted
3 T champagne vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Champagne vinegar, to taste

Place potatoes into a large heavy bottomed pot. Cover with cold water and place over medium high heat. Bring to a boil then immediately reduce heat and remove lid. Gently simmer until potatoes are fork tender. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then promptly drain and dry well. Slice potatoes, but not overly thin.

Place eggs in a heavy large saucepan. Cover with cold water, and place over high heat. At the first serious boil, remove the pan from heat, cover and let stand 14 minutes. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then remove and dry. Thinly slice the boiled eggs.

In a large bowl, mix together the pesto, dijon mustard and champagne vinegar to taste; then add the potatoes, radishes, boiled eggs, capers and pine nuts. Mix well with both hands. Season with salt and pepper to your liking. You may need to add more pesto, dijon mustard and champagne vinegar to reach the right moisture level. As with all salads, the ingredients should just be nicely coated and not soupy.

PESTO MASHED POTATOES

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks

1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
6 T unsalted butter
1 C+ pesto
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a large heavy pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

When done, drain potatoes well, return to pot, add milk, cream, butter, pesto, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—creating a more rustic version. The butter, milk and cream amounts will likely need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

PESTO FINGERLINGS

2 lbs small fingerling potatoes, cleaned
Sea salt

4 T butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 C+ pesto

In a large pot, combine salt, water, and potatoes and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Cooking time depends on fingerling size. Drain and remove from the pot, placing the potatoes into a large bowl. Add butter, salt, pepper, 1/3 cup of pesto and toss well, but gently. Plate up as a side dish, and drizzle pesto over fingerlings as desired.

Pesto

4 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 C pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 C Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Sea salt, to taste

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil, more if needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in the bowl of a food processor armed with the steel blade. Process in pulses into a paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and process further until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheese and add more oil if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Put the pesto in a bowl and set aside.

Pourboire: if pine nuts are unavailable or outlandishly expensive, you may substitute walnuts.

Bis, Bis! Fennel

February 19, 2010

Fennel, which is the spice for Wednesdays, the day of averages, of middle-aged people. . . . Fennel . . . smelling of changes to come.
~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, from The Mistress of Spices

In life, beware of haggard bulbs. Look for fennel that is clean, firm and solid, without signs of splitting, bruising or spotting. The bulbs should be whitish or pale green in color, and the stalks should be relatively straight and closely superimposed around the bulb. Both the stalks and the leaves should be green in color. There should be no signs of flowering buds as this suggests that it is past its prime. Fresh fennel should have a fragrant, subtle aroma with hints of anise.

Once the somewhat unwieldy fennel is home, cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a chef’s knife.

If slicing the bulb for a recipe, remove the core, but leave it intact for wedges as the core will keep the individual layers together. Always save the lacy fronds for garnish and refrigerate the stalks for making stock.

These two sumptuous sides will pair well with hearty winter roast or braised poultry, beef or lamb. Maybe not centerstage, but this is food that makes you smile inside out; so often the supporting cast steals the show.

MASHED POTATOES & ROASTED FENNEL PUREE

3-4 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed of stems and fronds, cut into 8 wedges
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks
1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
6 T unsalted butter
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 F

Coat fennel with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Line a baking dish with aluminum foil. Arrange fennel in dish and roast for 30-40 minutes, until the fennel softens and before it begins to caramelize. Allow to cool some. Transfer fennel wedges to food processor and blend until puréed. Set aside.

Place potatoes in a large heavy pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

When done, drain potatoes well, return to pot, add milk, cream fennel purée, butter, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—whatever whets your whistle that day. The butter, milk and cream amounts will likely need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Lightly grate some parmigiano-reggiano over the top of each serving.

BRAISED FENNEL WITH CREAM

3 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed, and cut vertically into quarters

2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 C vegetable broth or chicken stock
1/4 C heavy whipping cream
1 T fresh lemon juice

Melt the butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the fennel, arranging them in a single layer with cut sides are down. Cook gently over medium heat until browned, 5-8 minutes. Avoid the temptation to play with the fennel in the pan so they achieve a nice brown hue. Gently turn the fennel, and brown the other side.

Season with salt and pepper, add stock and cover pan. Turn down the heat and braise the fennel until it is very soft and most of the broth or stock has evaporated, about 20 minutes. Check on occasion and add a little more stock if the fennel is overly dry and not completely soft.

Remove the lid and pour in the cream. Simmer gently until the cream starts to thicken and glazes the fennel, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, shaking the pan. Taste for seasoning.

For ….we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips.

~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Another seasonal dish that poses noël well on a family table. This year, I may even bow to the temptation of offering a merry, merry menu for the upcoming fête. That festive notion almost attains Martha-like disquietude. Chalk it up to another one of those poorly intuited late night passing thoughts which so often fall well short during saner deliberations over a sunrise cup of joe.

Speaking of darkness, the other night it was hard to overlook a gaudy, flashing front lawn display across the street from a recent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve meal. Eerily splayed across the yard were santas, sleighs, reindeers, angels, snowmen, et al., all mechanically flickering in red and green yuleish disunion. More disturbing was the inexorable xmas dirge droning from the yard speakers to all the neighborhood until late into the night…as if they assumed that everyone would jollily join lockstep in their personal plastic fantasy. What have we done to render these holidays so dysfunctional?

On to food (a convenient escape). A root vegetable closely related to the carrot but even richer in vitamins and minerals, parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) indeed look like a pale colored, fat, broad-shouldered version of their brethern. Native to the Mediterranean basin, parsnips have been relished for centuries and may have been cultivated in ancient Greece. The word parsnip derives from the Latin pastinum, a kind of fork, because they produce short tine-like roots. The ending was modified to -nip as it was incorrectly assumed to be botanically related to the turnip which is actually a member of the mustard family.

Choose parsnips that are firm with a good creamy color without spots, blemishes, cuts, or cracks. They should have a good, uniform shape (about 4″-8″ in length) and should not be limp or shriveled. Avoid ones that are particularly large since they may prove to be tough.

Parsnips have a similar sweetness to carrots and impart a lovely nutty flavor to the potatoes. The sage lends an earthiness.

MASHED POTATOES & PARSNIPS WITH SAGE

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks
1 lb parsnips, centers cored out, peeled and roughly cut into chucks

8 whole sage leaves, finely chopped
6 T unsalted butter

1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
4 T unsalted butter
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place potatoes and parsnips in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce heat to a gentle boil and cook until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small sauce pan over medium high heat, melt butter. When it stops foaming, add chopped and whole sage leaves. Cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.

When done, drain potatoes and parsnips well, return to pot, add milk, sage butter, additional butter, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—whatever is your preference. The butter, milk and cream amounts may need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Pourboire: For an even finer and spry texture, finish these off with a hand held (not mechanized) dough hook.