February 12, 2009

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
~Virginia Woolf

Often used in salads, soups and simply as a side, orzo is a rice sized and shaped pasta made from semolina flour. Derived from the Italian word for “barley” from which it was originally made, a kernel of orzo is slightly larger than a grain of rice yet smaller than a pine nut. It has always been an enfant gâté with the “kids” in this household, and serves as a luscious accompaniment to grilled or roasted meat, fish or fowl. Toasting some of the orzo first imparts a rich nutty flavor and obviates the need for a cream finish. This is a highly underrated side which finds itself to our table often.


1 lb orzo
2 T unsalted butter
2 T olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 T cold unsalted butter
8 C combined chicken stock and water

1/4 C finely fresh parsley leaves or other fresh herbs, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh parmigiano reggiano, grated

Bring stock and water to a boil.

Heat a medium nonstick pan over medium high heat. Add 1/2 of the orzo and toast until golden brown. In a medium saucepan, heat the butter and oil over medium heat, then add the onion and cook until soft. Add the toasted orzo and the remaining orzo and sauté for 1 minute to coat the pasta with the onion mixture. Add hot stock and water to the orzo as if you were making risotto, ladling a little at a time, until the pasta is al dente. Finish with the cold butter and 1 cup of the braising liquid. Stir in parsley or herbs and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Top with grated parmigiano reggiano

Lamb Chops with Charmoula

February 4, 2009

Charmoula is a lively, fragrant North African herb and garlic concoction which enhances the natural flavors of vegetables, meat, poultry and fish either as a sauce or marinade. It is equally comfortable ladled over asparagus as over grilled swordfish.


1 8-bone rack of lamb, trimmed and frenched,* carved into 8 individual chops
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter

*Frenched is when the meat at the tips is trimmed and cut away, exposing the ends of the bones.

1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds

1 C fresh Italian parsley leaves
1/2 C fresh mint leaves
1 C fresh cilantro leaves
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, pealed and cut in halves
1 T sweet paprika
1 t sea salt
1/2 t cayenne pepper

6-8 T extra virgin olive oil
juice and zest of 1 fresh lemon

Heat skillet over medium heat, then add cumin and coriander seeds; toast until aromatic and slightly darker so as the release the essences, about 2 minutes. Transfer seeds to food processor along with parsley, mint, cilantro, garlic, paprika, salt and cayenne pepper. Pulsing the processor on and off, blend until a coarse paste forms. With maching running, gradually add 4-6 T of olive oil in a slow, narrow, steady stream; continue blending and add 1/2 of lemon juice.

Stir together and retain chilled in a bowl a couple tablespoons of the mixture and the remaining lemon juice and zest to serve over the finished lamb chops.

Season lamb chops with salt and pepper; then, the rest of the charmoula should be liberally lathered over the lamb chops and then placed covered in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight. A heavy plastic bag could be used for this coating process. Remove lamb and retained charmoula in bowl from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before cooking.

Melt butter and olive oil in a heavy large skillet over medium high heat. Once hot, carefully place lamb chops in pan and saute around 3 minutes on each side, until medium rare. Do not constantly turn the meat or you will damage the connective tissue and mar the surface. Remove and allow lamb to rest for at least 10 minutes, then when served, top with retained charmoula.

Grilled Leg of Lamb

February 1, 2009

I am not a glutton, I am an explorer of food.
~Erma Bombeck

An earlier post on grilling set the taste buds aflutter (see Green Grilling Debate) . This makes no mention of my deeply rooted adoration of lamb. So, below is a very fine, yet simple recipe for grilled butterflied leg of lamb, which calls for a local, organic lamb. Usually, I would advocate cooking meat with a bone in, as that imparts flavor to the meat—but, when grilling a butterflied cut it seems a fine fit.

The lamb becomes succulent with a crusty, flavorful char on the outside, pink and tender on the inside. Before we embark on the cooking process, a few words on organic lamb…

Organic livestock farming promotes biological diversity and replenishment of soil without the use of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic certification means that the methods and practices of raising livestock have been reviewed by an independent third party. Organic meat production means that only meats labeled certified organic are 100% free of genetically modified organisms, pesticides, medications, and growth hormones.

You know what the word “local” means. Now, on to the queen for a day—


1 boned and butterflied leg of local, organic lamb (5-6 lbs. boned weight)

2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 T rice vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
2 T local honey
½ cup Dijon mustard
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup olive oil
3-4 fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 inch slice of ginger root, peeled and finely minced
1 inch slice of ginger root, unpeeled and thinly sliced
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved

Rosemary sprigs

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Rub the halved garlic cloves over the surface of the lamb; salt and pepper liberally on both sides. Then, combine marinade ingredients & pour over lamb. Marinate at least 2 hours at room temperature and preferably overnight in the refrigerator, turning the meat at least once and hopefully more. If it is marinated overnight in the refrigerator, be sure to bring the meat to room temperature before grilling.

Drain before cooking and reserve marinade.

Prepare coals or gas grill for barbecuing. If using charcoal grill, open vents on bottom, then light charcoal. Charcoal fire is medium-hot when you can hold your hand 5″ above rack for 3 seconds or so. If using gas grill, preheat burners on high with hood closed 10 minutes, then turn down to moderately high.

Just before grilling, strew several rosemary sprigs around the outside perimeter of the coals to impart subtle flavor to the meat.

Place the grill 4-5 inches above coals & grill lamb, fat side down, covered, 15 minutes. Turn meat & grill, covered, about 10 minutes more on the other side or until it reaches medium rare.

Before carving, let the lamb rest on a welled cutting board for at least 15-20 minutes to allow the juices to migrate throught. If you carve too soon, the juices will simply exit the lamb leaving a much drier piece of meat. Slice the lamb across the grain and on the bias and fan them onto plates. Heat remaining marinade, discard the sliced ginger root, and drizzle over the lamb slices.

Serve with a Côtes du Rhone or a California old vine zinfandel

Sustainable Seafood

January 31, 2009

Sorry, another screed from the bully pulpit…

Fish is a high-protein, low fat food that provides a range of health benefits. In particular, white-flesh fish is lower in fat than any other source of animal protein, and oilier fish contain substantial quantities of omega-3, or the “good” fat in the human diet. A growing body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids help maintain cardiovascular health by playing a role in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction.

In addition, fish does not contain those “naughty” omega-6 fatty acids lurking in red meat.

Despite their nutritional value, fish can pose considerable health risks when contaminated with substances such as metals—the most commonly discussed being mercury. Once mercury enters a waterway, naturally occurring bacteria absorb it and convert it to a form called methyl mercury. Unfortunately, humans absorb methyl mercury readily and are especially vulnerable to its effects. Because the poison is odorless, colorless and accumulates in the meat of the fish, it is not easy to detect and cannot be avoided by trimming off specific parts. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals, known as congeners. Eating fish contaminated with mercury or PCBs, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system, causing serious health problems, especially for young children and pregnant women.

How do you select a fish?

Rule: Know thy local fishmonger or butcher. There is no excuse for timidity—his job (the one he is paid to do) is to serve you fresh fish, fowl and meat. Probing inquiry about his product is completely de rigeur, if not mandated; and a fishmonger or butcher who does not openly share his intimate knowledge with you is one to avoid. (I knew one.)

(1) “Flat” fish:
The shorter the “boat to plate time” the better; firm, shiny, bright colored flesh; fresh, mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent, not “fishy” or ammoniac; scales intact & even; clear, not cloudy eyes (except for deeper fish, e.g., grouper); bright pink or red gills, not slimy, dry or mucous covered; fillets & steaks should be moist and without discoloration.

(2) Shell fish (crustaceans & mollusks):
“Boat to plate time” again rules; mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent; Lobsters and crabs should be purchased live and as close to the time of cooking as possible. Both should actively move their claws; lobsters should flap their tails tightly against their chests or, when picked up, curl their tails under their shells. Shrimp should have uniform color and feel firm to the touch. Hard-shell clams, mussels, and oysters, purchased live in their shells, should have tightly closed shells or snap tightly closed when tapped. If they do not close when tapped, they are dead and should be discarded. Soft-shell clams are unable to close their shells completely. To determine if they are alive, gently touch the protruding neck of each clam to see if it will retract. If the neck does not retract slightly, discard the clam. Discard any clams, mussels, or oysters that have cracked or broken shells. Freshly shucked clams, sold in their liquor, should be plump, moist, and shiny. Freshly shucked oysters should be surrounded by a clear, slightly milky, white or light gray liquid. Freshly shucked scallops vary in color from creamy white to tan to a light pink color. Squid should have cream-colored skin with pinkish patches.

Rule: Keep in mind how the fish in our precious oceans are preciptiously vanishing…the numbers from studies are staggering. For instance, since 1950, the harvests from about one third of the world’s fisheries have collapsed to less than 10% of their historical highs. Among the culprits are overfishing, habitat damage, climate change, oxygen depletion and bycatch. So, solemnly chose a species which is relatively abundant, and whose fishing/farming methods are friendly to the seas and rivers. The fish should also be one which is commonly free of known toxins or contaminants…that is, not found in troubled waters.

Because of the number of fish involved and the ever changing populations, a well researched, almost indispensable, site which rates current seafood choices is the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch . Another equally informative site is Blue Ocean Institute, offering assessments and suggested better alternatives to fish in significant environmental danger. Both sources also offer seafood and sushi pocket guides to assure your restaurant choices include sustainable fish.

Finally, a new book entitled Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving The Oceans One Bite At A Time was released for publication last month which provides a comprehensive guide for conscientious sushi diners.

Cuisine is both an art and a science: it is an art when it strives to bring about the realization of the true and the beautiful, called le bon in the order of culinary ideas. As a science, it respects chemistry, physics and natural history. Its axioms are called aphorisms, its theorems recipes, and its philosophy gastronomy.
~Lucien Tendret, from La Table au pays de Brillat-Savarin

Why has browning been such an ultimate culinary goal of so many recipes whether on the stovetop, oven or grill? Although now it seems so basic and intuitive, as with most cooking techniques, there is a chemical explanation.

Several causes of browning exist, which may act separately or in combination at various temperatures. One of the more fundamental and common reasons is the Maillard Reaction, a non-enzymatic chemical response which occurs in foods which contain both proteins and sugars. Maillard derived aromas are extremely complex and many components are formed in trace amounts by side reactions and obscure pathways. This particular phenomenon bears the name of Louis-Camille Maillard, who happened upon it when trying to ascertain how amino acids linked up to form proteins. From research undertaken in the early 20th century, he discovered that when heated sugars and amino acids were combined, the mixture slowly turned brown. Curiously, it was not until shortly after World War II that scientists associated the direct role that Maillard’s original chemical findings played in creating robust aromas and flavors in food.

The Maillard Reaction usually occurs when the denatured proteins on the surface recombine with those natural sugars present in that food. Usually the result of heat, a chemical reaction occurs between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, forming a multitude of interesting but poorly characterized molecules responsible for a broad, intricate range of scents and flavors, ultimately changing the pigmentation of food—the browning effect courtesy of Monsieur Maillard (1878-1936).