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.

 

 

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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.

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.

Baba Ganoush

August 10, 2011

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.
~Mark Twain

How the simple yet elegant baba ganoush ducked under the radar on this site is baffling. Not really a stealthy dish, as I have made, served and savored it many a time. Maybe it just took a needed, overdue coupling with two dear coastal pollo-pescatarians who have a penchant for hummus coupled with an oversupply of eggplant here to jump start the needed synapses. Just seemed natural to re-create a close cousin to, but in lieu of, sweetly addictive hummus. Breaking through that gateway hummus habit may prove brutally painful, but baba ganoush is a substance to consider. A methadone of food.

Baba ganoush or baba ganouj (بابا غنوج) is an iconic purée of eggplant, tahini, lemon juice, garlic and herbs. A protean dish—regional names, versions and services may vary across the Middle East and Mediterranean basin. But, whether served as an app, salad or side, the eggplant always remains front and center.

Baba ganoush can be refrigerated for up to 5 days prior to serving. Like most things, it improves after nestling overnight.

BABA GANOUSH

3 medium eggplants, halved lengthwise
1/2 C tahini (sesame paste)
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Small pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 C lemon juice
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 t sea salt, or to taste

Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro leaves, for garnish
A drizzling of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 F

Place eggplant with cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil. Prick in several places with a fork, place in oven and roast until soft, about 20-25 minutes. Cooking time varies depending on size and ripeness. A paring knife should easily slide into the eggplants. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

When cool enough to handle, scoop eggplant pulp into a bowl, discarding the skins. Add tahini, garlic, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Then gently stir together. Empty the mixture into a food processor fitted with a steel knife and purée in pulses until fairly smooth. Season to taste with more salt and/or lemon juice, if neccessary.

Garnish with parsley and lightly drizzle with olive oil. Serve with roasted bread slices or wedges of warm pita.

Pourboire: Adding a slight pinch of dried cumin or some seeded and diced fresh tomatoes are pleasing detours. Also, consider serving with a few fine cured olives.

Smooth skins hued from deep purple to violet white, and bodies styled from pleasingly plump to gracefully slender, eggplants always bare tender, creamy flesh inside.

Though commonly thought of as a vegetable, eggplant is actually a fruit, and specifically a berry. Eggplants belong to the Solanaceae plant family, commonly known as nightshades, and are kinsfolk with tomatoes, bell peppers and potatoes. Eggplants have nothing to do with eggs other than their oblong shape which spurred their ovular name. Other cultures favored the term aubergine which is derived from the Sanskrit meaning “to cure wind disorder,” since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence. The Sanskrit word vatinganah was somehow morphed to badingan by the Persians, then al-badinjan by the Arabs, alberengena by the Spanish, and finally aubergine by the French.

Native to India in wild form, eggplants were later cultivated in China around 500 B.C. The fruit was then introduced to the Mediterranean basin and Africa. Italy’s ardent affair with eggplant began in the 14th century. Myths persisted that eating eggplant caused insanity, not to mention leprosy and bad breath, which explains why eggplant was often used solely for decoration in many homes. Thankfully, so far I have at least avoided leprosy.

The Sicilian antipasto relish known as caponata is a poster child for food’s mottled history. An alluring triangular island smack dab in the middle of Meditteranean trade routes, Sicily has been conquered over centuries by the likes of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Germans, French, and Spaniards. Through all this rape, pillage and survival, Sicilians subtly borrowed along the way to engender a cradle of singular cuisine. But, it comes as no surprise that the origins of caponata are disputed.

Some say caponata is of Spanish descent, derived from the Catalan word caponada, a similar relish. Others emphasize that the root word, capón, a type of fish, suggest it was prepared with fish as in capón de galera which is a form of gazpacho served shipboard. Another school claims that the dish had to be a mariner’s breakfast because of the vinegar, which may have acted as a preservative. A final, yet less accepted, theory is that the word derives from the Latin word caupo (tavern) where cauponae was served—a form of gastropub for ancient travelers.

Caponata is protean, having as many versions as uses. Antipasto, contorno, bruschetta, pasta, frittata, paninis, with fish, atop grilled meats, etc.

CAPONATA ALLA SICILIANA

Extra virgin olive oil
3 medium eggplants, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 T red chile pepper flakes

2-3 ripe medium tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 T capers, drained, rinsed and dried
1/3 C green olives, such as cerignola, pitted and chopped
2 T pine nuts
2 T currants
2 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T balsamic vinegar
1 T sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t premier unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T tomato paste

Fresh mint, stemmed and chopped
Red chile pepper flakes

In a heavy pot or large sauce pan, pour in olive oil until about 2 1/2″ deep. Heat over medium high heat and bring the temperature to about 300 F. You can drop small pieces of eggplant or bread in the oil and when it starts bubbling vigorously, it is ready. Add the eggplant and cook, until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer cooked eggplant to paper towels and drain.

Meanwhile, in a deep, sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil to medium high, add the onions, garlic and pepper flakes and sauté until onions are softened, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, capers, olives, pine nuts, currants and thyme. Stir some and cook until the tomatoes release their juices, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk together balsamic vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and tomato paste, add to pan, and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.

Add the cooked eggplant, and continue to cook at a simmer until heated, about 2 more minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Garnish with mint and a pinch of chile flakes.

Pourboire:  consider dribbling caponata on bruschetta slices.

…dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening.
~Art Buchwald

This Provençal comfort food exudes the melodious aromas of poultry, olives, fennel and capers that so often waft from the region’s kitchens and tables.

Capers (Capparis spinosa L.) are perennial bushy shrubs that bear fragrant white to light pink petals, and fleshy leaves renowned for the delicious immature buds which are commonly prepared pickled in salt and vinegar. Native to the Meditteranean basin, the thorny caper bush is well adapted to the sun soaked, sandy and sometimes nutrient needy soil found in the region.

Intense manual labor is required to gather capers, for the buds must be picked each morning just as they reach the proper size—before they open. Merchants categorize capers by size with the smallest non pareil often being the most desirable. However, somewhat larger buds from Pantelleria, a hot dry wind-swept speck of a volcanic island south of Sicily, are also highly prized.

Freshly picked caper buds are not an especially savory lot, but their piquancy increases after sun-drying, salting and brining. Deceptive by size, these charming, petite morsels are tart, zestful and bring earthy, tangy, citrus dimensions to dishes. A pantry without capers should sense remorse. Capers are packed in glass jars in coarse salt or vinegar brine, and so it is incumbent to thoroughly rinse before use.

BRAISED CHICKEN WITH WINE, CAPERS, OLIVES, FENNEL, & SHERRY VINEGAR

1 (3 1/2 to 4 lb) chicken, rinsed, patted dry, cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Herbes de Provence
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 dried bay leaf
2 rosemary sprigs
1 C high quality green olives, pitted (such as picholine)
1 C capers, drained and well rinsed
4 fennel branches, roughly sliced into 2″-3″ pieces
2 C dry white wine
1 C chicken stock

1/4 C sherry wine vinegar

3 T fresh tarragon or flat parsley, roughly chopped

Season the chicken liberally with salt, pepper and a couple of pinches of herbes de Provence crumbled between finger and thumb. In a large heavy deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil and butter and garlic over medium heat. But, do not allow to brown. With a wooden spatula, massage the garlic cloves into the entire pan surface. Then, place chicken in pan, skin side down; the skin should sizzle some when the pieces contact the surface. Brown chicken in batches, turning over once, 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Remove crushed garlic cloves before they brown. Set aside browned chicken on a dish or platter, loosely tented.

Reduce the heat to medium or medium low, and add the onions. Sweat onions until soft and translucent, but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook one minute more. Return the chicken to the pan, and add the bay leaf, rosemary, olives, capers, fennel, wine and stock. Cover and simmer slowly until chicken is tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Remove the chicken to the dish or platter, and tent loosely with foil. Also remove bay leaf, rosemary sprigs. Raise heat, fortify sauce with sherry vinegar and boil down rapidly until sauce begins to just lightly thicken and coat a spoon. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking.

Serve over rice, pasta or thick noodles.

As for me, olives, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance.
~Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), Roman lyric poet

The olive itself is quite evidently the fruit of the squatty olive tree (Olea europaea) which is native to the coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean basin. Unlike most fruits though, olives are not eaten in their raw state, as the high level of glucosides naturally found in raw olives makes them strikingly bitter. For olives to become edible, the bitterness must be drawn from them through one of several methods: lye curing, water or brine curing, or dry curing.

The color of an olive indicates the stage of ripeness at which it was picked. Green olives are fruit picked before they have ripened, usually in early autumn.

Lucques olives originated in Lucca, Italy, but are now grown exclusively in France—particularly in the glorious Hérault countryside of the Languedoc region in southern France. Brine cured, long and slightly curved with firm bright green flesh, Lucques are meaty and full flavored with a sweet, buttery, and nutty finish. Lucques are freestone olives in that the flesh does not cling to the pits. The olives must be kept submerged in their light brine since they discolor very easily.

A black tapenade recipe is found on the previous post entitled Tapenade—Provencal Olive Paste, 02.03.09. Both tapenades can be used as dips, with cheeses, on pizzas, with pasta, in vinaigrettes, on crostinis. That is a short list.

GREEN TAPENADE

2 C olives, such as Lucques or Picholines, pitted
2 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and chopped roughly
2 T capers, drained and rinsed
2 high quality anchovy fillets
1/2 t fresh thyme leaves
2 T lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Zest of 1 lemon
2 t Dijon mustard
Dash of brandy or cognac
6 T olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

If the anchovies are salt packed, let them stand in a bowl of milk for 15 minutes to exude the salt. Then, drain and pat dry thoroughly.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the drained anchovies, olives, capers, mustard, garlic, cognac and thyme. Process in bursts until thick and chunky.

With the processor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until it is thoroughly incorporated. Season with pepper, then allow the tapenade to stand for an hour or so to allow the flavors to marry.