There is nothing better than picking up sun warmed tomatoes and smelling them, scrutinizing their shiny skins for imperfections, thinking of ways to serve them.
~José Ramón Andrés Puerta(a/k/a José Andrés)

So little to be said about this sublime salad from the Island of Capri, found in the Tyrrhenian sea off the Sorrentine peninsula, on the south side of the gulf of Naples — a timeless tricolored culinary classic (sometimes).

INSALATA CAPRESE (CAPRESE SALAD)

2 lbs heirloom tomatoes, sliced 1/4″ thick
1 lb fresh mozzarella (di bufala if possible), sliced 1/4″ thick
1/4 C packed fresh basil leaves

3-4 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

On a platter, alternately arrange fine quality tomato + mozzarella slices + basil leaves, overlapping them. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Pourboire: subtly shower with aged balsamic vinegar in lieu of extra virgin olive oil or better yet with the EVOO even though the two will not meld. Then again, add a few slices of fresh avocado or eggplant or try substituting arugula (with fresh oregano), kale, swiss chard, pesto, or watercress for your green.

TOMATO COULIS

1 lb red & yellow heirloom tomatoes, peeled, seeded and sliced
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and cut
Sea salt, to taste

1-2 TB extra virgin olive oil
Apple cider vinegar
Raw sugar (turbinado)

Peel, seed, and slice the tomatoes into 2-3″ wedges, and drop in a food processor fitted with a steel blend or simply a blender. Process or blend on high speed with cut garlic until smooth. Pulse the food processor or turn the blender to low, and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Add salt, wine vinegar and raw sugar in dribbles as needed and pulse or blend low. Do not strain and refrigerate, if necessary, until ready to serve.

Commonly, tomato coulis is served underneath grilled, roasted or sautéed meats, fish or vegetables or even used as a dip for fritters, sandwiches or other finger fodder. Just a slightly subtle divergence from an earlier post.

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Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things.
~Percy Bysshe Shelley

Deceptively simple yet complex, aromatic gàgà heaven in a bowl. Phở Nạm Bò (beef pho) was the talk earlier here, but it should be remembered that before the French incursion, cattle were cherished beasts of burden in Vietnam. They tilled rice fields and were not usually slaughtered for fodder. More of a pollo-pescatarian society except for the divine sus. So, the Việts have also embraced the less extravagant, more native, and still luscious chicken kin, Phở Gà — which is embellished with more or less depending on the region. While each kitchen ladles its own brand of phở, the further north, the focus is on intense, clear broth and far fewer garnishes. Less bling in Hà Nội than in Hồ Chí Minh City bowls.

Was phở born of feu? Some opine that the word phở is a corruption of the French feu (“fire”). So, maybe phở is a local adaptation of the French pot au feu or beef stew. As with pot au feu, cartilaginous, marrow rich bones and roasted vegs are simmered for hours to make a broth with the scum skimmed and discarded. Not a stretch really.

CHICKEN PHO (PHO GA)

1 – 4 lb chicken or leg thigh quarters, excess fat removed
Chicken back, necks, or other bony chicken parts
2 qts chicken broth
1 qt water

2 onions, peeled & quartered
3 – 1 1/2″ slices ginger, also sliced lengthwise
2 T coriander seeds, toasted
6 cardamom pods, toasted
6 star anise, toasted
2 cinnamon sticks, toasted
4 whole black peppercorns, toasted
4 whole red or pink peppercorns, toasted
4 whole green peppercorns, toasted
1 lime, quartered
4 stalks lemon grass, crushed and sliced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
4 sprigs fresh mint leaves, stalks bound
6 sprigs fresh cilantro, stalks bound
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Pinch of sea salt

1 T fish sauce (nước mắm nhi)
2 T raw sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 lb flat rice noodles (bánh phở)
Sea salt

Garnishes
Hoisin sauce
Hot chile sauce (e.g., Sriracha)
Lime wedges
Bean sprouts
Scallions cut in half, then lengthwise into tendrils
Thai or small Italian basil leaves
Thai or serrano chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced
Cilantro leaves, roughly cut
Mint leaves, roughly cut

Preheat oven to 350 F

Arrange onion quarters, rounded side down, and ginger pieces on baking sheet. Roast until onions begin to soften, about 20-25 minutes. Cut off dark, charred edges if any. In a heavy, medium pan over medium heat, carefully toast coriander, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon sticks and peppercorns until fragrant.

Leave whole or cut chicken into 6-8 pieces or so. To make the broth, put the chicken, back, neck or other bony parts in a large, heavy stockpot. Add the remaining ingredients (onions, ginger, coriander, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns, lime, lemongrass, garlic, mint, cilantro, red pepper flakes, salt) and bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Throughout the process, use a ladle or large, shallow spoon to skim off any scum that rises to the top. Cook until the flesh feels firm yet still yields a bit to the touch, about 25-30 minutes. Carefully lift the chicken out of the broth and place into a large bowl or on a deep platter. Keep the broth at a quiet simmer.

Once adequately cooled and the chicken can be handled, remove the chicken skin, pull the chicken off the bones and set the meat aside in a foil tented bowl. Do not cut into smaller pieces yet.

Return the leftover carcass and bones to the broth in the pot, add fish sauce (nước mắm nhi) and raw sugar, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust the heat to simmer the broth gently for another 1 hour. Then, strain the broth through a fine mesh sieve or a coarse mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth into a saucepan. Discard the solids and again use a ladle to skim fat from the top of the broth. Leave some fat for flavor.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Cut the cooked chicken into slices about 1/4″ thick and bring the broth to a gentle simmer in the saucepan. Now build…nest noodles in bowls, arrange the chicken slices over, and ladle the broth on top. Then, serve promptly with whatever garnishes suit your palate (hoisin, sriracha, lime, bean sprouts, scallions, basil, cilantro, chiles, mint and friends).

A Deviant Pesto

September 21, 2011

Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.
~Katherine Hepburn

Liguria, that bent little-fingered northwest region that is nestled between sea and mountains, and bordered by Provence/Côte d’Azur, Piedmonte, and Emilia-Romagna/Toscana. With a narrow coastline, Linguria’s lofty hillsides plunge into the sea, leaving scant space for the plains. Genoa is the port capital.

While the origins of pesto are debated and likely unknown, some Genoese archival documents mention a paste called battuto d’aglio (battered garlic) that was enjoyed in the 16th century and afterwards. No basil, extra virgin, pignoli or parm in that mix, but…outside of the city proper, there happens to be a narrow region where a temperate microclimate and soil conjoin to enhance basil growth. Ergo, the connection between Genoese terroir and pesto.

Despite persistent rumor, pesto means neither paste nor basil. From the Genoese dialect, pestâ is a contracted form of pestato, the past participle of pestare, which means “to pound or crush” — in this case worked with a mortar and pestle.

A humble dish inspired by a loosely arranged marriage between pesto and carbonara. In sometimes misdirected zeal, some purists may not bless the union. This has not been meant to be a slight but more of a delight.

LINGUINE WITH LEEK PESTO & PANCETTA

3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 ozs pancetta or bacon, cut into lardons

5 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 medium leeks, trimmed of green ends, well rinsed, and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1+ large egg
1 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped

8 ozs linguine
Sea salt

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano, grated
Fresh basil leaves, for garnish

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat; add the pancetta lardons and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to crisp, 8-10 minutes. Remove the pancetta from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to another medium heavy skillet and heat over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the garlic and leeks, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Pour the garlic and leek mixture to a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the egg and basil and process in pulses, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Season with salt and pepper to your liking. Return the purée to a large, heavy skillet, off the heat.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil and generously salt. Cook the linguine in the boiling water until just al dente, then drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Turn the heat under the garlic and leek purée to medium to warm, toss in the linguine and slowly add 1/4 cup or so of the reserved cooking liquid to thin the pesto, as needed.

Again remove from the heat, add the pancetta, egg yolks, and parmigiano-reggiano, and toss gently but well. Serve in shallow soup bowls garnished with whole basil leaves.

Happiness can only be found if you can free yourself of all other distractions.
~Saul Bellow

Coming as little suprise, the vast majority of Americans use their computers and televisions at the same time. So, Boston College profs S. Adam Brasel and James Gips decided to study media multitasking habits. They positioned cameras to track where research subjects were gazing in order to perceive the demands and disruptions caused by frequently switching between television and computer screens. Their rather startling (not?) findings will be reported in an upcoming article in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. On average, the study vassals switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer well over 120 times every half hour. When asked, participants thought they may have averted their glances between screens only 15 times per half hour, showing a less than subtle lack of self-awareness—a universally shared human trait.

While the computer prevailed in holding individual concentration spans, neither device proved capable of gleaning the attention of study participants for very long, regardless of age. The median length of gaze lasted less than two seconds for television and less than six seconds for the computer. Have you ever tried to fully engage a serious novel with the TV blaring, even whispering, in the same room?

So, what is truly the level of comprehension among people who frequently switch their attention between devices? How do we quantify such visually tweeked cerebral contortions? Remember, the study did not even contemplate other no less dominant “time saving” stimuli: cell phone calls, endless texts to and fro, tweets, f-book posts, music, and a chiming iPad all simultaneously garnering attention from the same person. Oh, and alas let us not forget those living souls in the room who have the gall to crave live communication. Sounds like ADDHD on crack. It is no stretch to say that multi-device sensory overload and distraction enliven stress in an already stress enhanced world. What these disorienting diversions do to intimacy is for another day, but it seems sadly evident. As for effects on the details and reinvention of imagination? Unsure.

Finding solace in the kitchen can be a ceremonial escape from the day’s distractions. Hand transforming raw, solitary ingredients into a savory amalgamation of tastes, scents, textures and hues for the communal table is a focused outlet—an artful destressor of sorts. Simple or haute, cooking offers a mission, a task with a certain rhythm topped by a sense of accomplishment…a chance to impose free will and character. Throughout the coddle, what may seem mundane may prove vital. And afterwards, you relish the contentment of eating your work (with others maybe?).

It only seemed fitting to offer four doors to this post, all the while fixed on my laptop and pecking away with an Anthony Bourdain re-run and inane ads droning in the background. Scribbling here without cells, texts, tweets, tunes, radio, iPad—but, still pandering to live beings and a screen or so.

PESTO POTATO SALAD

3 lbs red potatoes, quartered

6 organic, free range eggs

1 large bunch fresh radishes, rinsed, scrubbed and thinly sliced

1 C pesto
1/2 C Dijon mustard
1/2 C capers
1/2 C pine nuts, toasted
3 T champagne vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Champagne vinegar, to taste

Place potatoes into a large heavy bottomed pot. Cover with cold water and place over medium high heat. Bring to a boil then immediately reduce heat and remove lid. Gently simmer until potatoes are fork tender. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then promptly drain and dry well. Slice potatoes, but not overly thin.

Place eggs in a heavy large saucepan. Cover with cold water, and place over high heat. At the first serious boil, remove the pan from heat, cover and let stand 14 minutes. Drain and place in an ice bath to cool, then remove and dry. Thinly slice the boiled eggs.

In a large bowl, mix together the pesto, dijon mustard and champagne vinegar to taste; then add the potatoes, radishes, boiled eggs, capers and pine nuts. Mix well with both hands. Season with salt and pepper to your liking. You may need to add more pesto, dijon mustard and champagne vinegar to reach the right moisture level. As with all salads, the ingredients should just be nicely coated and not soupy.

PESTO MASHED POTATOES

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks

1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
6 T unsalted butter
1 C+ pesto
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a large heavy pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

When done, drain potatoes well, return to pot, add milk, cream, butter, pesto, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—creating a more rustic version. The butter, milk and cream amounts will likely need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

PESTO FINGERLINGS

2 lbs small fingerling potatoes, cleaned
Sea salt

4 T butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 C+ pesto

In a large pot, combine salt, water, and potatoes and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Cooking time depends on fingerling size. Drain and remove from the pot, placing the potatoes into a large bowl. Add butter, salt, pepper, 1/3 cup of pesto and toss well, but gently. Plate up as a side dish, and drizzle pesto over fingerlings as desired.

Pesto

4 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 C pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 C Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Sea salt, to taste

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil, more if needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in the bowl of a food processor armed with the steel blade. Process in pulses into a paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and process further until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheese and add more oil if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Put the pesto in a bowl and set aside.

Pourboire: if pine nuts are unavailable or outlandishly expensive, you may substitute walnuts.

Pesto Rosso

August 9, 2010

Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.
~Pablo Picasso

We are born voyeurs of sorts. We unabashedly crave the look-see.

Although the nervous system works as a wholly (though less than flawless) integrated entity, some cerebral areas are more focused on certain functions. So, researchers can distinguish the centers responsible for vision, hearing, touch, olfaction, taste and so forth.

The human cerebral cortex is notorious for its depth, irregularity and variability from one individual to the next. Anatomically minute, the cerebral cortex is only about 3-4 mm thick. Yet, it plays a pivotal role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness.

Part of the cerebral cortex, the occipital lobe is located behind the parietal area, separated from the cerebellum right at the back of the skull. The smallest of all lobes, the primary business of this gray matter is visual perception and processing—differentiating colors, shapes, images. In particular, the Peristriate region of the occipital lobe is involved in visual and spatial processing, demarcation of movement and color discrimination.

Human color sensitivity is tripartite. Along with closely related primates and marsupials, we possess three independent channels for conveying color information, derived from three different optic cone types. There are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. They are the three pigment colors that cannot be made by mixing other hues and are mixed to create all other colors and tints. The number derives from the three types of color-discriminating receptor cells, called cone cells, in the human retina. The three cone varities have broadly overlapping ranges of sensitivity, and are designated according to the location of their peak sensitivities in the long, medium and short wavelengths of the color spectrum.

According to the subtractive theory of color, color is produced by pigment or combinations of pigment. Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors together, e.g., red and yellow to get orange. Tertiary colors are combinations of primary and secondary colors.

There are seven colors defining wavelengths of visible light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The color red is evoked by light consisting predominantly of the longest wavelengths of light discernible by the human eye and brain.

Red — a color that connotes anger, blood, embarassment, stop, ardor, shame, ferocity, courage, danger, frustration guilt, fire, hate, eroticism, hell, passion, sex, sin, debt.

Some plants, like tomatoes, are often colored by forms of carotenoids which are red pigments that were originally developed to assist photosynthesis.

SUNDRIED TOMATO PESTO

4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, chopped
6 T olive oil

1 C oil packed dried tomatoes, drained well
1/4 C parmigiano reggiano, grated
1/4 C pine nuts, roughly chopped
1/3 C fresh basil leaves
1 t balsamic vinegar

In a medium heavy saucepan sauté garlic in olive oil over meduim heat, stirring, until softened. Do not brown. Set aside and allow to cool. By pulsing, purée sun dried tomatoes, parmigiano reggiano, pine nuts, basil, vinegar, garlic and oil in a food processor fitted with the knife blade until pesto becomes a smooth paste.

OVEN ROASTED TOMATO PESTO

2 1/2 lbs cherry tomatoes (preferably heirloom), halved
1-2 T extra virgin olive oil

1/2 C pine nuts
6 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 C total fresh basil leaves, chopped
4 T extra virgin olive oil divided
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, grated
1 T balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 250 F

Drizzle tomatoes with olive oil and place on an aluminum foil covered baking sheet, cut side up. Roast until slightly shriveled and wrinkly on the outside and juicy on the inside, about 2 1/2-3 hours. The time will vary depending on tomato size and ripeness. Set aside and allow to cool.

Meanwhile in a small dry skillet, toast the pine nuts until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Set aside to cool. Using the same skillet, sauté the garlic in olive oil until golden.

In a food processor fitted with a metal knife, add the oven roasted tomatoes, pine nuts, garlic, basil and olive oil. Pulse a few times until mixture is well combined. Scrape down the sides and then add the parmigiano reggiano and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and pulse the mixture to a paste.

Mussels with Pesto

September 23, 2009

Of what use are the great number of petrifactions, of different species, shape and form which are dug up by naturalists? Perhaps the collection of such specimens is sheer vanity and inquisitiveness. I do not presume to say; but we find in our mountains the rarest animals, shells, mussels, and corals embalmed in stone, as it were, living specimens of which are now being sought in vain throughout Europe. These stones alone whisper in the midst of general silence.
~Carolus Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica (1751)

To make a long story absurdly too short, Carolus Linnaeus has often been deemed the father of taxonomy. He laid the foundations for the binomial or binary nomenclature system of naming and classifying organisms which, with modifications, is still in broad use today.

For those of you who have diligently plucked the sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) from your summer gardens and bottled fresh pesto for the winter months—or who have friends who do the same and so generously share.

MUSSELS WITH PESTO

1 C pesto (see Pasta with Pesto, 08.18.09 post)

2 1/2 lbs fresh mussels

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C shallots, peeled, and sliced
1/2 t sea salt
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3 C dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper

Spread pesto out in a large shallow bowl.

Scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If necessary, debeard them and discard any opened mussels which fail to close when pressed together.

Sweat the olive oil, shallots, garlic and salt in a large, heavy saucepan over medium low heat until soft but not browned, about 3 minutes. The shallots should be translucent. Add the wine and bring to a constant, but not raging, boil, for about 5-6 minutes. Add the mussels, cover the pan, and cook the mussels until they open, about 4-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Drain the mussels through a sieve, reserving the liquid in a bowl. Then transfer this strained liquid to the bowl with the pesto and stir them together. Remove the mussels from the shells and place them in the bowl with the pesto and reserved cooking liquid. Stir gently to coat and season liberally with pepper. Serve promptly with toasted or grilled bread.

Mint-Basil Pesto

August 25, 2009

As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.
~Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

This is a little follow up from an earlier pesto post…a variation on a theme.

A perennial flowering herb, mint (genus Mentha) belongs to the family Lamiaceae. Decidedly aromatic, with bright zest on the front end and a cool finish, mint is a culinary one man band—used fresh, but also in sauces, teas, beverages, cocktails, jellies, syrups, candies, and ice creams.

In Greek mythology, Minthe was a beautiful naiad (river nymph) who was obsessively charmed by Hades, the stern ruler of the Underworld and husband of the goddess Persephone. Minthe and Hades succumbed to their carnal urges and engaged in an illicit—but far from discreet—affair. The spurned wife took revenge on her husband’s mistress by savagely kicking Minthe repeatedly, transforming her into a pungently sweet mint plant. With each blow from Persephone’s foot, the plant countered by releasing her delightful aroma.

A garden caveat: the root growth of mint is aggressive, vigorous and expansive. Left to its own devices, mint will spread quickly and become a Medusa-like nuisance, so consider planting the starters in a can or bucket first before introducing it to your garden.

A beloved summer aside, mint-basil pesto mates especially well with grilled lamb, chicken and fish.

MINT-BASIL PESTO

2 C fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 C pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted
Pinch of sea salt

1/4 C parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1/4 C pecorino-romano, grated

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Put the mint, basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process in pulses into a paste. Add the olive oil and process further until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheeses and add more oil if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.