Grits — Apple & Mushroom

October 5, 2012

We are born believing. A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Meatless Mondays campaign, jointly launched by the Johns Hopkins and Columbia University schools of public health in 2003, has gained traction over the last decade or so. To those who wonder, this simply means to go meatless on Mondays. Awareness of the program has escalated, influencing decisions to reduce meat intake. The campaign has now begun to focus on national institutions like food service providers, manufacturers, chains, supermarkets and schools. Eating with moderation in mind holds real promise.

Tell that to the USDA and the beef association. The Department of Agriculture had published an interoffice newsletter calling for participation in Meatless Mondays by merely choosing among the many meat-free dishes offered in the office’s cafeteria. The newsletter commented that meat production plays a role in climate change, waste water, and demands on fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels. It also pointed to the many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat. All true.

This prompted an immediate, sermonizing rebuttal from the beef trade association. J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, who wrote in lobby lingo, “(t)his is truly an awakening statement by USDA, which strongly indicates that USDA does not understand the efforts being made in rural America to produce food and fiber for a growing global population in a very sustainable way. USDA was created to provide a platform to promote and sustain rural America in order to feed the world. This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet.” What a core statement. Politicians from beef states jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that they would eat even more red on Mondays, dubbin’ dem “double rib-eye Mondays.” Where is John Wayne when you need him?

In response, the USDA promptly backed down, withdrawing the newsletter and issuing a retraction via Twitter: “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. Statement found on USDA website was posted w/o proper clearance. It has been removed//” Sad and disappointing. Nothing like tweeting a “Dear John” to yourself. As always, caught in the middle of this childish spat are we consumers.

Michael Klag, a dean of Johns Hopkins, expressed his dismay with the hasty USDA recantation with a cc letter to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. The letter reminded the department, Congress and the administration of the responsibility to represent all segments of agriculture and fulfill the mission of promoting healthy diets.

There should be fewer bones to pick. Remember that far from being a vegan, vegatarian, polo-pescatarian or otherwise, I am by nature an omnivore who savors species from both plant and animal kingdoms. However, temperance should be exercised at the table, and if that involves some rational red meat forbearance then please so be it. Meatless Mondays, without so much political quibble, are a good start at home.

APPLE & MUSHROOM GRITS

4 bacon slices, cut into lardons
1 small to medium red onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 dozen+ mushrooms, such as shiitake, chanterelle and oysters, cut evenly

1 C quick-cooking grits
2 C whole milk
Pinch of sea salt
1 C chicken or vegetable stock
1 C water
1 rosemary sprigs
2 thyme sprigs

1/2 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
2 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 T parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1 pinch freshly ground pepper

1 Granny Smith apple, cored and julienned

In a large, heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the bacon, onion, and garlic, and then sauté until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and cook another 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for later.

Combine grits, milk, sea salt, stock/water, rosemary and thyme in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat, cover and let stand for another 10 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary and thyme sprigs.

Whisk the cream, mushroom mélange, butter, parmigiano-reggiano, and black pepper into the grits.

To serve, spoon grits into shallow soup bowls or to the side or partially underneath an entrée. Top with julienned apple.

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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.

We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.
~Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Such fallible creatures we are, so driven to ignore precedent and repeat our errors. We live forwardly but stubbornly fail to capture retrospect for a greater comprehension of the present. It just seems that grand blunders and miscues tend to abound during times of human conflict as well. Which brings us to the otherwise pastoral Ardennes forest, a land of human flaws, trials and tragedies.

A sparsely populated region, the Ardennes form part of la diagonale du vide (the diagonal of emptiness) a vast swath of land running from the French-Belgian border in the northeast to the Pyrénées in the southwest. Perched on a chalk plateau, the Ardennes are typified by steep valleys carved by swift rivers–the Seine, the Marne, the Asne, and the most prominent, the northward flowing Meuse. A bucolic region of dense verdant forests, rolling hills, deep valleys, ravines and ridges, the Ardennes are located primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg, but they also stretch into northern France.

The Ardennes were thought impenetrable by France’s top brass…unsuitable for grand military operations due to the redoubtable forest, challenging terrain, narrow and winding roads and frequently fragmented communications. Yet, the same Ardennes were the site of several military clashes rife with error.

August, 1914
The Battle of the Ardennes was a brutal conflict fought between German, French and British forces on the Western Front near the outset of World War I. One conflict was centered in the Ardennes forest and the other further north, at the village of Charleroi. The battle was provoked when outnumbered, brightly adorned French troops stumbled into German forces in thick fog in the lower Ardennes.

The French were to be reinforced on the battlefield by the British Expeditionary Force. But, an unexpected delay coupled with poor relations and communications between French and British commanders, caused the British to instead engage elsewhere in the Battle of the Mons while the French continued to fight alone. The combat was ferocious. “If you go into the death trap of the Ardennes, you will never come out,” lamented a French officer. In a single day of battle, some 27,000 French soldiers perished.

At Charleroi, with roads swollen with Belgian refugees, the French army began collapsing along their lines. His army pushed to its limits, the French general Charles Lanrezac ordered a full retreat without having consulted French headquarters. The scale of the French defeat was notable and losses were devastating. Though the command did not denounce Lanrezac’s decision thus tacitly authorizing it, he was later made a scapegoat for the failure of France’s offensive strategy during the Battle of the Ardennes. Many historians suspect this reprimand was likely due to his openly harsh criticism of his superiors’ shoddy field tactics.

The Maginot Line
France had suffered withering losses of life, limb and property in the Great War.
To deter future invasions from Germany, after World War I the French constructed a system of seemingly impregnable underground defensive positions. This almost surreal series of linked forts, vaults and domed turrets meant to protect the eastern frontier was called la Ligne Maginot. The forts were elaborate underground wonders that housed a half million French troops with protected fortresses, casements, electric trains, kitchens, bakeries, cinemas, air conditioning and the like. But they did not stretch the length of the border, stopping well short of the sea. Notably, the Ardennes was left virtually defenseless, manned only by a few poorly trained and weakly equipped divisions. While the French had earlier pioneered the use of armor and aviation in warfare, French military strategy had become shortsighted and devoted to the now obsolete static trench tactics of WW I. Few efforts were made to protect the homeland from concentrated armor, troop or air advances. Their armies had simply become anachronistic.

May, 1940
Europe had been at war some nine months. The armies of Britain and France, despite having declared war on Germany following Hitler’s attack on Poland, had seen little combat. This tense period, which came to be known as the “Phoney War,” met an abrupt end in early May, 1940, when Germany launched an invasion of France and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Even though reports had earlier poured into the French command that the Wermacht had been amassing troops and equipment just across the border of the Ardennes, they fell on deaf ears.

German armored units crossed the river Meuse and streamed through the Ardennes. They cut off and surrounded Allied units that had advanced into Belgium and The Netherlands. French divisions in the Ardennes were not prepared or equipped to deal with the major armored thrust and were incessantly hammered by the Luftwaffe’s air cover. German forces also outflanked the Maginot Line and advanced deeply across France. By the third week in June, German forces had reached the English Channel.

So, the vaunted Maginot Line was summarily defeated not by a frontal assault but by a massive German flanking maneuver by way of the so-called “impervious” and marginally defended Ardennes. The collapse of the French nation soon ensued.

The panicked French government fled to Bordeaux, refugees streamed out of Paris and the city was occupied. The recently appointed chief of state, Philippe Pétain publicly announced France would request an armistice with Germany. The armistice was signed in Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s same railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest used for the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Pétain would soon become head of the French collaborationist government at Vichy, and after French liberation was brought to trial and condemned to death. His sentence was commuted to solitary confinement for life, and he was imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died.

December, 1944 – January, 1945
As winter chilled across France, the Battle of the Bulge (aka the Ardennes Offensive or Von Rundstedt Offensive) took place near the close of World War II. Allied forces had rapidly advanced across France which led to a certain sense of complacency. They dicounted any chances that the Germans would seize the initiative to counterpunch and had forgotten those lessons of the 1940 blitzkreig through the Ardennes. So, those same impassable forests were left scantily clad again.

On the German end, the Luftwaffe had been effectively grounded, leaving little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. Hitler unrealistically assumed his armies may be able to defend Germany if they could neutralize and divide the Allies. Senior German military officers doubted whether these goals could be attained with this counter-offensive. Their concerns went unheeded by an irrational Führer who desperately wanted to stage a repeat of the 1940 campaign which preceded France’s sudden fall.

So, hidden from air surveillance, a formidable Nazi force assembled in the narrow, mist-shrouded valleys and thick forests of the German Eifel hills on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. There were glaring drawbacks facing them: a somewhat depleted, often elderly reserve troop force and a dramatic shortage of fuel. The Germans planned to remedy the latter by capturing American fuel depots as they advanced.

The attack proceeded apace at night in mid December 1944, along a 70-mile front of the Ardennes. Tactical surprise against this weakly defended sector was achieved during heavy overcast weather, which impeded the Allies’ superior air forces. The cloudy night skies of the dark forest were illuminated by German searchlights, flares, tracers, and the bursts of artillery fire. The noise of artillery shells, tanks and small arms fire was deafening. German fired artillery volleys at the trees which not only dropped molten metal on soldiers, but also sent large wooden splinters and treetops downwards. At first, there was nearly blind panic behind the American lines. Mayhem. Scattered bands of troops wandered about frigid, wintry forests, digging foxholes, and randomly skirmishing with any Germans they encountered. The combat was chaotic, confused and fierce in cold, snowy conditions. A bulge emerged and deepened into the Allied lines.

Dogged resistance though — particularly around Elsenborn Ridge and the pivotal towns of Bastogne and St. Vith — threw the Germans well behind schedule and denied them vital roadways. Many exhausted, young Americans displayed resolute heroism through numerous firefights while almost devoid of food, supplies and ammunition. The 101st Airborne Division, surrounded and besieged in Bastogne, was holding the town precariously. Lacking fuel though, the advancing German armored divisions finally came to a halt in the Ardennes before even reaching the river Meuse and then (when air spaces cleared) were constantly hampered by merciless air attacks. The Allies finally went on the offensive closing the last escape routes and securing victory.

The Battle of the Bulge inflicted horrendous casualties on both sides (some 185,000). In the wake of defeat, German units were left severely depleted as survivors retreated to their final death dance along the Siegfried Line. Shortly after Hitler’s suicide, Germany signed terms of an unconditional surrender.

February, 2012
The Champagne-Ardennes is a part of champagne land–that luscious, nutty, fruity, floral, ample, bright, elegant, flinty, musty, oakey, structured, toasty, woody, yeasty, and supple bubbly we so covet.

Located in France’s northeast, the Champagne-Ardennes is comprised of the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haute-Marne. However, the “region” designated for the production of Champagne, also includes parts of the adjoining départements of Yonne, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne and Meuse. The old French province of Champagne roughly comprised this same area.

An amalgam of art and science, méthode champenoise champagnes are tediously crafted from the cuvées of selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Pure varietals such as Chardonnay (blanc de blanc), Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (blanc de noirs) are created exclusively from those grapes. The slight reddish tint imparted to some champagnes results from using blanc de noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker the red.

Next, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire elixir, called the tirage, is poured into a thick glass bottle and sealed with a secure crown cap. The tirage is placed in a cool cellar and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, producing that cherished effervescence…those “stars” that the monk Dom Pérignon captured and savored centuries ago.

After several months, yeast cells die and the fermentation process is completed. The champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in those toasted yeasty traits. While aging here, the yeast cells split open and spill into the wine which imparts these complex aromas and flavors.

Then, in a laborious process, the dead yeast cells (lees) are removed through a process known as riddling (le remuage). The bottle is placed partially upside down in a rack at a 75° angle. Each day, the riddler turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while maintaining its downward angled postion. This forces the dead yeast cells into the narrow neck of the bottle where they are finally removed via disgorging. The bottle is kept angled downward while the neck is frozen in a bath which forms a plug of frozen wine containing those dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is removed and the carbon dioxide pressure forces the frozen plug out leaving behind champagne. At this stage, un dosage of white wine, brandy, and sugar is added to adjust sweetness levels. The bottle is meticulously closed with the cork wired down to secure the internal pressure of the carbon dioxide.

Not surprisingly, the dense Ardennes forest is also magically teeming with champignons (mushrooms) — chanterelles, boletes, morels, hens of the woods (Coquilles En Bouquet, Pieds De Griffon, Polypores)…

MUSHROOM-GRUYERE TOASTS & FRISEE WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

Wild Mushroom-Gruyère Toasts

3 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 3/4 lbs mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, cèpes, morels, oysters), gently cleaned and cut into halves or thirds depending on size
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C fresh thyme leaves, stemmed and chopped
1/4 C fresh chives, chopped
Pince of sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 C Gruyère, shredded
Fresh quality artisanal bread, cut into 4″ squares, crusts removed

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high until the oil is shimmering. The butter should turn just a light golden hue, but not burn. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the liquid has evaporated, about 5-6 minutes. Add the shallots, thyme, chives, salt and pepper and cook about 1 minute more.

Meanwhile, toast the slices of bread strewn with some Gruyère in a broiler. Cook on one side some, then turn over and toast very little before adding the Gruyère. Please resist the temptation to overload the bread with cheese. The mushrooms are the star attraction, the rest play bit roles.

Spoon the mushroom mixture on top of the toasts and serve with the frisée salad.

Frisée & Champagne Vinaigrette

1-2 heads frisée, torn into large bite size pieces

1 C extra virgin olive oil

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

In a 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 the frisée.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss greens with champagne vinaigrette.

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.

Mushroom Broth (Stock)

August 18, 2011

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The debate over broth vs. stock. Why has this always been so perplexing, even amusing?

Broth derives from the Old English noun broþ, having trickled down from an Indo-European verb root bhreu- or bhru- (“to heat, boil, bubble”), which also produced the word “brew.” So, etymylogically speaking, the noun broth means “liquid in which something has been boiled.”

The Germanic form brotham was borrowed into vulgar Latin as brodo, which by way of Old French broez came into 13th century English as broys or browes.

Stock presents a tad more complicated root scenario given its varied definitions and uses (inventory, corporate stock, summer stock, livestock, paper stock, stock remark, etc.). The word originally denoted a “tree trunk,” coming from the Germanic stukkaz. Stock, as used in the sense of broth, was so coined in the mid 18th century, because one keeps a “stock” of “broth” on hand in the stockpot.

Etymylogically, they seem nearly interchangeable. But, many chefs may dispute this, contending that stock is produced by slowly simmering relatively unseasoned bones and cartilage, some meat scraps, vegetables and aromatics in order to extract their essences. Often, the collagen rich bones are first oven roasted with the vegetables, and then added to the water to further enhance colors and flavors. This gelatinous, rich, and viscous stock is then strained and later used as a base to build sauces, gravies, soups or braises. Broth, on the other hand, they claim is crafted with whole meat morsels, is more delicate by nature and refers to an already finished and seasoned product. So, although not necessary broth can be made of stock.

Add to this semantic cauldron culinary terms like bouillon, court bouillon and consommé and mayhem ensues.

The distinction between vegetable stock and broth seems neglible. As for mushroom broth, made from those noble fungi taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants and animals and more genetically related to animals than plants…a vegan conundrum?

MUSHROOM BROTH

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 1/2 C large mushroom stems (e.g., portabella), cleaned and sliced lengthwise
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 C dry white wine
1 T shoyu
1 C dried mushrooms, such as porcini and/or shiitake
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 t dried herbes de Provence
3 sprigs fresh thyme
8 whole black peppercorns
3 C water
3 C vegetable stock

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Add the mushrooms, stems, onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine, shoyu, dried mushrooms, salt, dried herbs, thyme, peppercorns, water and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to moderate and simmer until the liquid is reduced about one half, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Pour the hot broth through a fine strainer into a large bowl. Strain a second time for good measure.

Store broth in the fridge for up to four days, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.
~Bertrand Russell

Ancient Rome had an illustrious tradition of kinky emperors, some of whom just narcissistically railed out of control. Whimsy and revelry gone morbid.

Armed with a paranoid temperament, Caligula (37-41 AD) was widely reputed for his tyrranical cruelty, orgiastic extravagances and sexual perversities. Nero (54-68 AD), an early persecutor of Christians, was known for having captured worshippers burned in his garden at night for a source of light. Alleged to have calmly fiddled while Rome burned—a My Pet Goat moment—he also had his mother Agrippa summarily executed and stepbrother poisoned. Commodus (180-192 AD) who ruled with his father, Marcus Aurelius, held perverse sway over hundreds of concubines and terrorized Rome’s rich and famous with a murderous reign of death and torture. In the midst of his cruelties, Commodus would sing and dance, frolicking as the town buffoon on Rome’s streets. The notorious Caracalla (209-217 AD) ruthlessly murdered his brother and persecuted some 20,000 of his allies. Elagabalus (218-222 AD) married multiple times, even taking one of the sacred vestal virgins as one wife. He was rumored to have had homosexual liaisons with his courtiers and had his body hairs plucked to appear more feminine…even engaging in public crossdressing.

Enter on stage Silvio Berlusconi, the current prime minister. Facing trials on a number of scandals, his private life has become curiously linked with the phrase bunga bunga. The term is now so well embedded in the Italian language that “bunga bunga city” refers to Sig. Berlusconi’s world.

Hordes of linguists and journalists have puzzled over the origins of these words which emerged last year, when a teen Moroccan belly dancer said she had attended bunga bunga parties with other women at Sig. Berlusconi’s villa in Milano.

I openly confess to not knowing what bunga bunga means. But, Arab news sources have reported that that Berlusconi learned these harem rituals frοm hіѕ friend, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Some have suggested that the phrase comes from one of the prime minister’s favorite infantile African-connoted jokes. Other references to bunga include a masquerading hoax about the Abyssinian emperor inspecting the H.M.S. Dreadnought at the turn of the century which involved the author Virginia Woolf donning a full beard. Earlier this year in Spartacus fashion, Sabina Began, German actress and Berlusconi’s friend, even revealed to Sky Italia that she herself was bunga bunga: “Bunga Bunga is simply my nickname.”

I still do not know the definition, but have felt an urge to proclaim “I am Bunga Bunga!” It has a certain cinematic ring.

So, enough bunga bunga prattle. On to more serious fare, risotto—a marvel of the food world. There is a radiance to risotto. An elegant, yet soulful, sheen which almost causes you to bow at the waist.

RISOTTO con FUNGHI e VINO BIANCO

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2-3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 ozs proscuitto di parma or san daniele, diced finely
3/4 lb porcini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 1/2 C arborio rice
8 C chicken stock

1 C sauvignon blanc
4 T unsalted butter
1 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, almost simmering.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add the shallots and proscuitto and cook until the shallots are softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned while stirring. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes.

Then, begin the process. Add a ladleful of hot stock, and cook, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more. The rice will become tender and creamy but still al dente after about 18 minutes.

Add the wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

Gratin Dauphinois Revived

March 21, 2011

Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.
~Victor Hugo

They say spring sprang yesterday.

Equinox is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The vernal equinox officially occurs when the center of the sun crosses the equator. But, be not dissuaded by the tale that on the vernal equinox the length of day is exactly equal to the length of night. Daytime to nighttime equality actually falls before the vernal equinox and likewise after the autumnal equinox.

For most venues on earth, there are two distinct days per year when the length of day and night are closest to being equal; those days are referred to as equiluxes, not to be confused with equinoxes. In a nutshell, equinoxes are points in time, but equiluxes are full days. An equinox happens each year at two precise moments in time—rather than two whole days—when there is a location on the earth’s equator and the center of the sun is observed vertically overhead.

To complicate matters, the earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight when approaching the horizon, so the sun appears to be above the horizon a few minutes earlier than actuality. Therefore, on the vernal equinox, the daylight hours are actually longer than the length of time between when the sun crosses the horizon at dawn and when the sun crosses the horizon at sunset. Those factors all combine to make the day of the equinox not the day when we have twelve hours each of light and darkness.

The vernal equinox also brings spring leeks to mind. Always, maybe too often, thinking food. Those sweet, green and white alliums that are planted in the fall and left in the frigid soil until the first thaw. Because farmers usually mound soil and mulch over leeks to protect them against cold temperatures, they tend to be grittier than their summer cousins. So, take care to clean them assiduously. Trim the roots, peel away the translucent outer layers and slice the leeks in half lengthwise. Wash well under cold running water.

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS WITH MUSHROOMS & LEEKS

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

2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, then sliced thinly crosswise
8 oz crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 T unsalted butter, divided
2 t dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs baking potatoes, preferably russets, peeled and very thinly sliced

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 golden, about 5-7 minutes. Set leeks aside in a bowl. Wipe skillet with a paper towel.

Melt an additional 2 tablespoons butter in the same skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced mushrooms, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are tender, about 8 minutes. Set mushrooms aside in a bowl.

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin/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 slightly overlapped in a single layer. Strew cooked leeks and mushrooms over the potatoes. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add a second layer of potatoes with cheese, cream and season again 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. Remove from oven, let rest for at least 10 minutes, and then serve.