You’re enough to try the patience of an oyster.
~Lewis Carroll

Since the early 17th century, the sometimes covert, yet prestigious l’Académie Française has been printing official dictionaries and regulating the French language which was not really unified until around World War I (1914-1918). Before the early 20th century tribal, provincial, and regional tongues and texts flourished in France. Recently, l’Académie proposed some spelling reforms (les réformes orthographes) by barring some uses of the beloved circumflex (accent circonflexe) sometimes dubbed “le petit chapeau” or Asian conical hat that adorns the top of certain French nouns and verbs.  Indicated by the sign ^, it is placed over a vowel or syllable, almost giving a poetic flair to the word, sentence, paragraph via pronouncement — even meaning (e.g., mûr “mature” mur “wall”).

These spelling changes were approved by the body in 1990 and then promptly forgotten or ignored.  Apparently, very few took notice then.

The notion was to generally ban circumflexes over the letters “i” and “u” (e.g., boite and brule) with some exceptions.   This linguistic move met with genuine public outrage, sober and sometimes furious discourse and even a popular movement called je suis circonflexe. One of the phrases often heard in the uproar was nivellement par le bas (“a dumbing down”) by removing the circumflex from certain letters.    The purist pressure mounted until l’Académie rendered its proposals for circumflex omissions optional.

The accent circonflexe is one of the five diacritical marks used in the French language and can also be seen in Turkish, Afrikaans, Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Portuguese, Swedish and Vietnamese writings.  The other four diacritics in French written script, besides l’accent circonflexe, are l’accent aigu (marché), l’accent grave (très), la cedille (garçon) and le tréma (aïoli).

Circumflexes are applied in the “nous” (we) and “vous” (you) passé simple (simple past) conjugations of all verbs, and in the “il” (he) conjugation of the imparfait subjonctif (subjunctive imperfect) of all verbs.  Over time, silent letters were also dropped so those lost souls (especially “s’s”) have a circumflex over the preceding vowel even though the missing letter reappears in some derivative words (e.g., forêt vs forestier).  Some 2,000 words utilize circumflexes in the French language (about 3% of the native lexicon).

Even though the school texts make the circumflex spelling changes discretional, it appears that le petit chapeau may still reign and will still sit atop such words (letters) among so many others:

âcre, âge, âme, apparaître, arrêt, bâtard, bâton, bête, bien-être , bientôt, brûlée, bûcher, château, connaître, côté, coût, crêpe, croître, croûte, dépêche, dîner, diplôme, disparaître, enchaîner, enchâsser, enquêter, être, extrême, faîte, fantôme, gâteau, gîte, goûter, hâte, honnête, hôpital, hôte, hôtel, huîtres, impôt, intérêt, jeûne, maître, mâture, même, mûr, nôtre, pâté, pâtissière, pêche, plutôt, poêle, prêt, prôse, prôtet, ragoût, reconnaître, rêves, rôti, symptômes, tâches, tantôt, tempête, tête, théâtre, traître, vêtements, vôtre, forêt, fraîche, fenêtre…

This is by no means a final adieu.  There is little doubt circumflexes will be imposed here — both are correct, n’est-ce pas (avec ou sans)?

OYSTERS ON THE GRILL WITH HERB BUTTER

16 T unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temperature or nearby
4 T fresh herbs, minced (tarragon leaves and stripped, cored fennel bulbs)
2 t lemon zest, freshly grated
2 T lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1-2 t cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 dozen (24 or so) fresh, “local” oysters

Place the softened butter and the remaining herbs, lemon and spices to a medium size bowl. Use a large spoon to cream (or place into a food processor fitted with a metal blade) the ingredients together until well blended. Serve immediately or preferably store in the frig.

If you save the butter for later — which likely should be done — wrap it up in plastic wrap in the shape of a log and refrigerate overnight until stiff. To use, just unwrap and slice discs from the chilled butter log and bring to room temperature on waxed or parchment paper.  Then, place on warm oysters and then re-grill briefly, as below.

Place the oysters on a medium high grill, flat side up.  (Remember to hold your open palm about 3″ above the hot grate, and medium high is reached when the pain demands you retract it in 2-3 seconds.)

Cover with hood and cook until they open, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the oysters to a platter, carefully keeping the liquor inside. Remove the top shells and loosen the oysters from the bottom shells. Top each oyster with a pad of compound butter and return the oysters in their bottoms to the grill. Again, cover the grill and cook until the butter is mostly melted and the oysters are hot, about 1 minute.

STEAMED OYSTERS WITH WHITE WINE & HERBS

2 dozen (24 or so) “local” oysters
Equal amounts of fish or chicken stock and water

1 C dry white wine
1/2 C tarragon leaves
1/2 C thyme leaves
2 t cayenne pepper

Bring water and stock to a boil in a heavy stock pot. Place oysters, wine and herbs in a steaming tray until done and shells start to open, about 3-5 minutes — quickly pull them off the heat and shuck.

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Global warming is too serious for the world any longer to ignore its danger or split into opposing factions on it.
~Tony Blair

Another sad example of how humankind has altered the ocean environment — exhausting the limits of an ecosystem’s endurance. The iconic coastal California mussel may be the casualty this time.

A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that by mid-century, western coastal waters will become sufficiently acidic to hinder shell formation by mussels, oysters and corals. These waters are particularly fecund because winds that blow surface water out to sea allow water laden with nutrients to swell near the shore. This upwelling renders those waters especially vulnerable to ocean acidification. Increased acidity levels develop in the waters as they absorb carbon dioxide which accelerate as trends of anthropogenic greenhouse gases continue to soar. Ocean acidification has been dubbed the osteoporosis of the seas.

What does this have to do with our cherished shellfish? As carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water, saturation levels of the mineral calcium carbonate, a critical building block for shells and skeletons, decreases. Undersaturation can reach perilous levels depriving these sea creatures of the basic component needed to develop and maintain their shells. According to these researchers (who were using optimistic models), by 2050 west coast seawater will no longer have sufficient saturation states to maintain adequate calcium carbonate levels. This places mussel populations at serious risk. This is indeed a dire finding given that mussels provide habitat, refuge, and food for some 300 other species.

A correlative finding was reached in a later study conducted at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. Researchers there noted that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that climate scientists attribute to human activity have resulted in increased ocean acidification. This team focused on mussel larvae, which swim in the open ocean before settling down on the shoreline and attaching to reefs as adults. As with many other marine creatures, mussel larvae are more vulnerable to environmental stresses.

Larvae were grown in the lab at present acid levels, levels projected for the end of the century if carbon dioxide emissions continue, and at levels which might be reached if emissions are reduced. The shells were measurably thinner and the mussels’ bodies smaller at projected acid levels.

Other researchers have sung the same refrain: if human actions continue unabated, oceans will continue to absorb rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide which causes ocean acidification whose corrosive effect ultimately threatens to decimate certain shellfish species.

Do we welcome such a sea change?

As always, follow the cleaning and culling ritual. Thoroughly scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of cold water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards (the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell) cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance of the cooking process or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

MUSSELS & CHORIZO

1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 Spanish chorizo sausages, diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 lbs mussels, cleaned
1 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 t fresh oregano leaves, chopped
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/2 C dry white wine
1/2 C fish stock or clam juice
2 T unsalted butter

1 t fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Roughly ground black pepper
Sea salt

In large, heavy Dutch oven or deep sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium and add chorizo, garlic and shallots. Sauté until shallots soften and become transparent, about 4-5 minutes. Add mussels, thyme, oregano and tomatoes. Stir well.

Add wine and stock to pan. Cover, and cook over medium heat until the mussels open, about 6-8 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a few minutes to reduce liquid by half. Add butter, and stir vigorously into the sauce.

Transfer mixture to a large serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and pepper, and salt to taste. Serve with toasted or grilled slices of artisanal bread rubbed with fresh garlic cloves.

Oysters are the most tender and delicate of all seafoods. They stay in bed all day and night. They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them.
~Hector Bolitho

Another instance of less can really be more. Sort of in a quiet mollusk mode this evening, letting the water course over. Going for the basics from the bounty without much fanfare or meandering seemed the right direction. A simple concept, fruits de mer is translated (Fr–>Eng) as “fruits of the sea.” Traditionally, it is served cold on a broad platter and composed of both raw and cooked aquatic invertebrates, including such delights as oysters, shrimp, crab, mussels, scallops and clams. This fruits de mer tartare is purely au naturel and does irreverently include a flat swimmer in the yellowfin tuna.

Oysters, with their reputed aphrodisiac potency, have been a favorite of both lovers and food lovers over time, with Roman emperors paying for them by their weight in gold. Romans were so enthralled by these marvelous mollusks that they sent droves of slaves to the shores of the English Channel to do their dirty work and gather them.

It goes without saying that the freshness of your seafood is absolutely paramount when served naked. The usual caveat applies—know thy fishmonger intimately.

FRUITS DE MER TARTARE WITH GINGER & AVOCADO

12 oysters
10 diver sea scallops
2 oz fresh yellowfin tuna fillet

2 T fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 T chives, minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lime
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Sliced fresh avocado
2-3 T champagne vinaigrette

Shuck oysters and place in medium bowl with their liquor. Rinse and dry scallops. Coarsely chop oysters, scallops and tuna, mix all together in the bowl and refrigerate for a few hours. Mix tartare with minced chives, chopped ginger, lemon and lime juice. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil.

Serve over fanned out carefully sliced avocado which has been kindly doused with champagne vinaigrette.

How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?
~Charles de Gaulle

A kitchen syllogism (with even a third premise): 1) Champagne pairs well with oysters. 2) Champagne couples splendidly with brie. 3) Champagne is simply sublime solo. Ergo

Christened the “Queen of Cheeses,” brie is an elegant, creamy, buttery soft French cow’s milk cheese. The cheese tooks its name from the area once called “Brie” which roughly corresponds to the modern département of Seine-et-Marne which is located in the Île-de-France region of France, often called the Région Parisienne or RP (the Paris Region).

To make brie, the curd is made by adding rennet—an enzyme that aids in separating curds from whey—to raw milk and then heating it at low temperatures. The separated curds are spread out in thin layers in molds and drained for almost a day, about 18 hours. The cheese rounds are removed from the molds, salted, and bacteria is introduced. Finally, the cheese is aged in caves for at least four to five weeks.

French brie differs significantly from that exported to the states. Real brie is unstabilized being made from unpasteurized raw cow’s milk, a practice prohibitied by the USDA. Our imported brie is made from pasteurized milk, remains alabaster white, has not developed properly and is simply not ripe or mature. Therefore, it is much milder and decidely less complex in aroma and flavor.

Brie should be served at room temperature, almost gooey, and the delicious rind is intended to be eaten. Because I tend to love brie au naturel with a crusty baguette, the liberal use of the cheese in this soup recipe occasionally makes me wince. The champagne finish is not optional, especially since the remainder of the bottle beckons.

OYSTER & BRIE SOUP

3 dozen medium oysters in their liquor
4 C cold water

1/2 lb unsalted butter
1/2 C all purpose flour
1 C onion, peeled and sliced
1/2 C celery, chopped
1/2 C carrots, chopped
1/2 t white pepper
1/2 t Cayenne pepper
1/2 t dried thyme

Pinch of sea salt
1 bay leaf

1 lb Brie cheese, rind on, cut in small wedges
3 C heavy cream
3/4 C champagne

Chives, for garnish

Combine oysters, oyster liquor and water together and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Strain and reserve the oysters and water separately.

In a large heavy skillet, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth but not browned. Increase the heat to medium, add the onions, celery and carrots and sauté until onions are translucent, about 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the white and Cayenne peppers and thyme and sauté about 2 minutes more, then set aside.

In a large heavy saucepan, bring the reserved oyster water along with the salt and bay leaf to a boil. Stir in the sautéed vegetable mixture until well mixed. Turn heat to high. Add brie and cook until cheese starts to melt, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Lower heat to a simmer and continue cooking for about 5 minutes stirring constantly. Remove from heat, strain soup and return to pot. Turn heat to medium high and cook about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in cream and cook until the soup reaches a gentle simmer, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the champagne.

Turn heat to low, add the oysters and allow them to plump for about 3 minutes. Serve immediately in shallow soup bowls, garnished with chives.

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.