Open Faced Mia Bella

February 9, 2016

The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal. 
~Victor Hugo

In some senses, one can concur with Hugo’s immaterial ideals, but what about an artisan’s bread, eggs, Italian cheese and salted and cured ham together?  They tend to belong en masse and are fetchingly archetypal.  And before bread, paradigms? Doubtful.

Sleep — humans spend some 35%-38% of each day slumbering.  It just does not seem congruent, or even affable, to have so few studies over the years that delve into the subconscious or sleep habits with some 50-70 Americans having been affected by disorders of some type. Some 80% of workers suffer from some form of sleep deprivation, likely not taking into account sometimes falsely alleged criminals, prisoners or spies.  The first thing that is wrested from someone by the “correctional and rehabilitation” institution is sleep.  Then, with sleeplessness a person often confesses, whether the act was committed or not.

These are not merely dormant times of our daily, passive lives spent too frequently as consensual slaves at cubicles and/or before screens and shift work, often relationless and without any conception of life. Instead, these are somnolent times that rend habits which can profoundly alter our physical, physiological, electrical and mental health.

Now, some studies have been published in the journal Science by the Nedergaard lab which proposed that the daily waste produced by the brain (which uses about 20% of the body’s energy) was cleansed and recycled toxic byproducts by sleep alone.  The noxious trash, the junk is cleared of our so-called “glymphatic” systems of our brains by merely reaching deep sleep.  The brain, it seems, clears itself of neurological waste while we slumber.  It seems the interstitial spaces, the fluid area between tissue cells, are mainly dedicated to removing our neural rubbish accumulated when awake, while we naturally sleep — uninterrupted.  (Interstitial derives from the Latin interstitium meaning “interstice” or “an intervening space.”) Without good sleeping tendencies, these toxins remain in the brain, and one logically posits will produce significant cerebral damage in the future.

So, let your body unwind, release tension with latent exercise toes to head focusing upon relaxation, darken the bedroom, keep bed mates or others informed, manage caffeine and alcohol intake, adjust temperatures to a cooler level, and simply cultivate good sleeping habits.

Sleep well and tight.

A Simple Egg Sandwich

2 ciabatta slices, about 1 1/2″ thick, with, after smearing with softened butter, the top side is also slathered in guanciale or pancetta juice

2-3 T unsalted butter, softened

Guanciale or pancetta sliced somewhat thin, but not paper thin, and barely cooked in a skillet to cover bread.

4 local eggs, poached or fried, so the yolk runs
Tallegio cheese, thinly sliced, to cover bread

Fresh basil leaves, chiffonaded, to complete

Cut the fresh ciabatta and cook on both sides in the broiler, one buttered on the top side (to melt) after cooking the bottom.  Later, slather the slices on the top side in guanciale (preferably) or pancetta juices after cooking one of the two in another heavy skillet.  Then, place the gently cooked guanciale or pancetta on the ciabatta bread because they will be broiled in the next step.

Poach or fry the eggs, softly, then drain them, while you arrange the tallegio cheese atop the meat and bread and broil briefly until just melted.  Put the eggs on, and finally finish with fresh chiffonaded (thin ribbons) basil leaves.

So, to review the arrangement:  1) toast ciabatta –> 2) melt butter atop –> 3) guanciale juices –> 4) guanciale slices to cover –> 5) tallegio to cover –> 6) eggs –> and 7) basil ribbons.

Pourboire:   You may also consider using 4 thinner slices of ciabatta and create a panini with the same or similar ingredients without the toasting and buttering steps and with full basil leaves (not chiffonaded) or arugula leaves.  Then, olive oil and cook on a sandwich press or grill pan.

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Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.
~Mark Twain

Decision fatigue. That mental chisel which chips away at rational choice. The brain strain that afflicts both rich and poor, those slogging through work’s quagmire, agonizing at the mall or mired down at home. Different from what is typically perceived as physical fatigue, it takes an insidious toll on the brain. Researchers have noted that over time it depletes the mind’s energy, leading to erratic choices and dubious decisions. Faced with navigating a ceaseless influx of decisions upon decisions, many look for shortcuts and some begin to act impulsively while others resist change and do little. Even the mere act of resolving potential tradeoffs may prove cerebrally exhausting. Innovation and creativity often lag. Willpower wanes. Choosing threads, wheels, colors, fabrics, channels, deals, gadgets, abodes, mates and more…all can foster tired, vulnerable minds which is the paralytic price paid for our dizzying overabundance of options. Well, with the exception of partners which usually presents either arid or florid choices.

The human brain is a remarkably pliant organ, but it is not without limits. Much like a muscle, when it becomes depleted, the brain loses efficiency. But, unlike other body parts, the brain usually fails to appreciate when an onslaught of decisions renders it fatigued. As with depression and other mental disorders, the very organ that is supposed to protect against harm is the same organ which is disabled. The often unrecognized tired mind struggles to ascertain what to retain and what to disregard, often failing at both, and then rueful choices follow.

Decision fatigue even plagues home cooks pondering a simple meal. Such an array of options. What sounds most appealing? What to buy or what is even available at the markets? Should the meal be lavish or frugal? Are there compromises to consider? What app(s), entrée and sides should be served? What types of prep are most apt given the basic menu and timing issues? Whose palate must be placated? How should the meal be plated? Should any of the meal be served in courses or at once? What should be served to drink? Which wines pair better? Shall there be dessert, and if so, what? How should the table be set and the meal presented? What otherwise seems a banal task of serving food can be rife with uncertainty and tiresome indecision. Perhaps this is why many have a short list of favored meals.

Acute and chronic stress levels are reaching blight proportions. Not only does prolonged stress raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, increase the risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, it makes you one unpalatable mate. Researchers have even learned that chronic stressors can rewire the brain in ways that promote its presence. These sinister changes in the neural circuitry affect the regions of the brain associated with decisions and behavior. You tend to fall back on rote routine and eventually settle into bad habits. Executive decision-making skills are hampered.

Fortunately, stress induced changes to the brain are reversible, and pharmaceuticals are often not the answer. Solace can be found in the kitchen. Once embraced, cooking offers a change of pace and venue, soothing the angst and perturbations of the daily rut. Jangled nerves can be soothed. On a most basic level, it provides a creative outlet where raw, solitary ingredients are transformed into an amalgamation of scents, flavors, textures and hues. While stress numbs the senses, cooking activivates them. The cooking process has an almost measured field of action, a mission with a defined goal, and a finish with sensuous contentment.

Below is an embarassingly easy salad, soup, and sandwich trio to add to your decision tree. Relax, unwind, create and then savor. To narrow the matrices for the indecisive, the core ingredients remain fairly constant—fennel and fungi fervor with bright, fragrant tones of anise, sometimes citrus, and an underlying earthiness.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SALAD WTH CITRUS-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 C fine champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 C extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Parmigiano reggiano, thinly sliced into curls

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, orange zest, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream until it emulsifies. Set aside.

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

Slice the bulb very thinly into rings. Add mushroom slices and gently toss with a light coating of the champagne-orange vinaigrette. Sparsely finish with a few parmigiano reggiano curls.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SOUP

4 T unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and chopped
1 t fennel seeds, toasted and ground
8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed

4 C mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/2 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter until hot and foaming, but not browning. Add the fennel and toasted fennel seeds, then sauté over moderate until just softened, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushrooms, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, turn to high until it just reaches a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Pour into a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée in pulses until smooth.

Pour the puréed soup into a large heavy saucepan, add the cream, and gently reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking. Ladle into shallow soup bowls and strew with tarragon ribbons.

FENNEL, MUSHROOM & PROSCUITTO PANINI

1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and thinly sliced, almost shaved
4 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 oz proscuitto, very thinly sliced
4 oz taleggio or fontina cheese, sliced

Artisan bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill sparingly with fennel, mushrooms, proscuitto and top with some taleggio. The bread should be the star.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight(s) on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. It should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing cheese.

Pourboire: foods known to reduce stress include asparagus, avocado, berries, beef, cottage cheese, fish, milk, nuts, oranges, pasta, rice, whole grain breakfast cereals and breads, raw vegetables, cooked spinach, tea, and dark chocolate. Some foods are chocked with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B-6 and B-12 while others increase magnesium, folic acid, calcium and serotonin levels. These foods also counteract cortisol & epinephrine, the so-called “stress hormones” secreted by the adrenal glands.

When you make his sandwiches, put a sexy or loving note in his lunch box.
~Anne Rice

PANINI

Maybe with the current economic woes and ever expanding disparities in this country’s burgeoning two class chasm, it may be timely to discuss just a simple two ply sandwich…or even a panino. They share an affinity.

Before my panini palaver persists, I have to preface. Even though they are often dissed as nothing more than a portable meal, making a really damn good sandwich or panini demands every bit the same nurturing that many other fine dishes deserve. Unless you fail to thoughtfully coddle them, sandwiches do not merit that “lunch bucket–not cuisine label,” something to be gobbled hurriedly at your desk or in the car. Au contraire! Rather, choice sandwiches are memorable art forms, both inside and out…

A panino is a sandwich made from a small loaf of rustic bread which is cut horizontally on the bias and customarily filled with cured meat, cheeses and greens. The literal translation of panino is “roll” or “stuffed bread,” with the plural being panini.

As with much of food history or gastronomic anthropology (as those phrases are loosely used here and elsewhere), the story of the sandwich is muddled. Such an abundance of cultural variance, criss crossing civilizations, endless definitional nuances, and often bewildering oral traditions…humanity’s comings and goings. The concept of bread as a focal point to the eating experience has been present for eons, so historical precision is elusive (see Pizza & Calzone Dough).

The first recorded sandwich was purportedly assembled by the scholarly rabbi, Hillel the Elder, circa 100 B.C. He introduced the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between matzohs eaten with bitter herbs…a sandwich which is the fond of the Seder and bears his name.

During the Middle Ages, thick slices of coarse stale bread called trenchers were used instead of plates. Derived from the French verb trancher, which means “to slice or cut,” meats and other victuals were piled on these bread platters, eaten with fingers and sometimes with knives as forks had yet to find prevalence. The thick trenchers absorbed the juices, the greases, and rather primitive sauces, and afterwards the soaked breads were thrown to the dogs or offered as alms to the poor. With the advent of the fork, finger food became impolite which rendered the trencher outmoded.

The first Italian recipe that vaguely resembled a panino was that for panunto (greased bread) described by Domenico Ramoli at the end of the 16th century—he even got nicknamed by his dish.

While references to “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese” are found throughout English drama from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a delay in the evolution of the sandwich ensued. Thankfully, the concept was finally revived in the 18th century by John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty and patron to Capt. James Cook who explored New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and Polynesia; he even designated the Hawaiian Islands as the Sandwich Islands. Rumor holds that Montague was so addicted to gambling that he steadfastly refused to pause for meals and instead ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread. While legends vary, it remains beyond quarrel that the word “sandwich” bears the name of John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

The sandwich was introduced to the states by the English import Elizabeth Leslie in the 19th century. In her cookbook, Directions for Cookery, she authored a recipe for ham sandwiches, which have evolved into an American tradition in many sizes, shapes and forms.

With the demand for haste emerging in the last century, sandwiches—from simple to elegant–have risen to become a staple of western civilization, for both rich and poor. Panini have slowly evolved from being basic worker’s fare to become trendy morsels on the food scene.

On panini preparation: brush the outside of the panini with extra virgin olive oil and fill it with whatever whets your palate—cheeses, cured meats, herbs, etc. As with pizzas and pasta, do not overload the sandwiches as the bread should be allowed a place at the table too. Proportions = “perfection.”

Should you own a panini grill, by all means use it. If not, use a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. The panini should be cooked to golden brown with grill marks and the innards pressed narrowly…usually slightly oozing with luscious cheese.

Recipes will follow on a subsequent entry, as I may have already overstayed my welcome with these ramblings. In the meantime, consider:

pesto, arugula, watercress, roasted peppers, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, tapenade, mozzarella, brie, gruyere, talleggio, fontina, pecorino, goat cheese, proscuitto, serrano, coppa, soppresatta, and pancetta, arugula, chard, basil, radicchio, baby spinach, extra virgin olive oil, truffle oil or salt, garlic oil, ciabatta, pain au levain, or baguette artisanal breads.

P.S. Use your imagination, as the possibilities prove endless.