The day hunger disappears, the world will see the greatest spiritual explosion humanity has ever seen.
~Federico Garcia Lorca

On a somber note, every 5 seconds a child dies of hunger related causes in this world. If you find that less than morally disturbing, skip over these thoughts and move on to the Betty Crocker part.

It is time to move beyond this stagnant state of denial about regional and worldwide food shortages. The ever bountiful agricultural economy of the last half-century that was taken for granted is drawing to a close. A new era has arrived where food scarcity shapes global politics and may well lead to upheaval and conflict. While the world’s burgeoning population has created a marked increased in the demand for food, climate changes and irrigation woes have made it nearly impossible to boost production to meet these needs. This may not happen tomorrow, but it will likely paint a bleak picture for our youth and their progeny. Hungry and thirsty people will by nature contentiously compete, protest, riot and even wage war to feed and water their offspring. And yes, Virginia, this will affect Kansas too.

In an article entitled The New Geopolitics of Food which appears in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, author Lester Brown explores how food shortages drive geopolitics and create volatility. The forecast appears dire and reeks of unrest.

Begin with basic demand: soaring world population growth. Each year, the world must feed an additional 80 million people, most of them in developing countries. The global population has almost doubled since 1970 and is projected to reach an ominous 9 billion by mid-century. Quite a few mouths to feed. Several billion people are meanwhile entering the “middle class” and trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. These new yuppies create additional demand for grains to feed these animals.

Next, consider supply: supply and production are simply lagging behind the booming demand for food. The reasons for shortfall are manifold, including reduced water tables, depleted wells and aquifers, irrigation overpumping, eroding soils, and the ever-present consequences of climate change. Consider that more than half of the world’s population lives in countries where water tables are falling; that for a temperature rise of every 1 C farmers can expect a 10% decline in optimal grain yields; that coincidentally the politically roiling Middle East is the first region where grain production has begun to decline due to water shortages; that new deserts are being created due to soil erosion and mismanagement, undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s crops; that without consulting locals, nearly nearly 140 million acres of land and water rights grabs have been secretly negotiated allowing more affluent countries to grow grain for themselves in far away lands. Such warning lights on our collective dashboard should not go unheeded.

The pervasive rich-or-poor-each-one-for-themselves mentality which forsakes global energy, water, soil, population and climate change policies directly causes food insecurity and destabilizes broad swathes of the world. A form of humans as pestilence. Sorely needed are cohesive narratives coupled with conflict-resistant agricultural strategies shared by all. A risk rife geopolitics of food scarcity has emerged and must be earnestly addressed before regional and global breakdowns are at hand…and not until “once upon at time, long ago,” right?

So, chickpeas seem not just timely, but regionally apt.

CHICKPEAS & OLIVES

1 1/2 C dried chickpeas
Equal parts of chicken or vegetable stock and water, to cover
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and gently smashed
1 bay leaf

3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C green (such as Lucques or Picholines) and black (such as Kalamata or Niçoise) olives, pitted and roughly chopped
Several sprigs fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
Zest and juice of 1 fresh lemon
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Soak the chickpeas in a bowl of cold water overnight. Drain and rinse well, then put in a heavy saucepan with the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Just cover the chickpeas, with equal parts of stock and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until very tender, about 45 minutes. Drain, discarding the used onion, garlic and bay leaf.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat, and briefly cook the garlic, about 30 seconds. Add the chickpeas, salt, and pepper, to taste, only to heat through. Smash some with a potato masher, leaving some chickpeas whole for looks. Remove from the heat, and stir in the olives, tarragon, and lemon zest. Stir in lemon juice, to taste.

Drizzle with olive oil, and serve as a base for roasted, sautéed or grilled fish, chicken or meat.

POLENTA WITH CHICKPEAS & LEMON

1 1/2 C dried chickpeas
Equal parts of chicken or vegetable stock and water, to cover
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and gently smashed
1 bay leaf
Juice of 1 lemon

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C quick cooking yellow polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 T freshly grated lemon peel
Pine nuts, for garnish

Soak the chickpeas in a bowl of cold water overnight. Drain and rinse well, then put in a heavy saucepan with the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Just cover the chickpeas, with equal parts of stock and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until very tender, about 45 minutes. Drain, discarding the used onion, garlic and bay leaf. Toss well with lemon juice. Set aside.

Then, in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk, cream, stock, garlic, and thyme to a simmer. Discard garlic cloves and thyme, and remove saucepan from the heat. Let stand for 10 minutes. Place saucepan to the heat and return the liquid to a slow boil, slowly pouring in the polenta. Vigorously whisk, until it reaches the consistency of oatmeal, about 5-7 minutes.

To finish, grate fresh lemon peel over chickpeas and combine with pine nuts, gently tossing them well. Then, spoon polenta into shallow bowls or on plate, topping each with a generous mound of lemony chickpeas and pine nuts.

Pourboire: there is nothing wrong with substituting canned chickpeas that are well drained. But, they will need to be briefly simmered in some stock with onion, garlic and bay leaf to impart flavor. Just take care not to overcook the canned species.

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Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.
~Blaise Pascal, from Pensées

DUCK RAGOUT WITH POLENTA

While the precise date for Easter is a matter of contention, the celebration is a moveable feast, in that it does not fall on a specified date in Julian or Gregorian calendars. Rather, the day for celebration is determined on a lunisolar calendar—the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal moon) following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox—even though this does not comport to ecclesiatical strictures. Polemics on the nearly endless theological, philosophical, mythological, and even biological controversies surrounding this rose from death holiday will serve little good here. Not that I fear expressing valid doubt; it’s simply a question of venting space.

Since childhood I have however pondered about the duck’s entry into the Easter fray, given that it is bunnies that really lay eggs, right? You know, that common marsupial form of the family Leporidae…or how bunnies, eggs and scavenger hunts are related to the celebration of Jesus dying on a cross and then resurrecting a couple of days later. Apparently, the egg bearing bunny evolved from the fertile Saxon goddess named Oestre, the pagan goddess of spring and personification of dawn. The goddess saved the life of a bird whose wings had been frozen by the snow, making him her pet and some even say her lover. Filled with empathy at the bird’s inability to fly, Oestre morphed him into a snow hare and bestowed upon him the gift of being able to run so rapidly that he could evade hunters. Still sensitive to his early aviary form, she also gave the male hare an ability to lay brilliantly hued (now pastelled) eggs one day each year.

We now know this tale may have been mischievously invented by a monk who became known as Venerable Bede. While research has failed to unearth much mention of Oestre earlier, Bede mentioned her in connection with the pagan festival Eosturmonath in a book authored in 750 CE. So, was the Easter bunny a literary forgery?

Myths built upon myths, all leading to marketing mirth.

A derivative of the French verb ragoûter, meaning “to stimulate the appetite,” ragoût is a thick, deeply intense stew of meat, poultry, fish and/or vegetables. Its northern Italian kin, ragù, is a sauce that often contains ground meats, pancetta, tomatoes, onions, celery, carrots, and wine.

As befits its name, this fare is far from taciturn.

4 duck leg-thighs, excess skin trimmed
3 T extra virgin olive oil

3 ribs celery, trimmed and finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

4 premium anchovy filets, rinsed, dried and minced

6 juniper berries
1 1/2 C dry red wine, such as a Zinfandel or Rhône
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

3 T tomato paste
2 C chicken stock

1 T fresh sage leaves, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sautéed or fried sage leaves, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F

Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add olive oil, and when it begins to shimmer, add the duck legs, skin side down. Cook until the skin is nicely browned and the fat has begun to render, about 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the legs over and brown the other sides, some 5 to 10 minutes more. Remove and allow to rest.

Add the celery, carrots, onion and garlic to the pot, and stir to combine. Cook until the onion has softened and has just started to color, approximately 8 to 10 minutes. Clear a space in the center of the pot and add the anchovies, then swirl and press them in the fat until they begin to dissolve. Stir further to combine. Add juniper berries, wine, cider vinegar and duck legs, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, approximately 15 minutes.

Add tomato paste and stir to combine, then enough chicken stock so that the combination takes on a saucy consistency and just barely covers the duck. Increase heat to high and bring just to a boil. Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook until the meat is almost falling off the bone, about 90 minutes.

Remove duck from pot and allow to cool slightly. Peel off skin, dice and reserve. Shred meat off bones and return to pot. Place pot on stove top over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add duck skin, sage, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Strew shredded duck over polenta, spoon over sauce, and top with a couple of sage leaves.

Serve in shallow soup bowls, paired with creamy polenta.

Polenta

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano

In a medium heavy saucepan, combine the milk, cream, stock, and thyme over medium high heat. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Discard thyme sprigs and garlic cloves. Reduce heat to low, slowly add the polenta and cook, stirring constantly, until creamy and thick, about 5-8 minutes. Gently stir in the parmigiano-reggiano.

Pourboire: the sauce and legs can be stored separately overnight in the refrigerator. The fat will rise to the top of the sauce and may be easily skimmed off when you are ready to heat it through the following day. You may even find this method preferable. Also, give strong consideration to serving the ragoût over delicate gnocchi.

Tre Polentas

February 17, 2009

Cuisine is the tactile connection we have to breathing history…in the end cuisine is the result of culture
~Clifford Wright, A Mediterranean Feast

Rarely is cuisine accurately ascribed to a country or nation…rather the food is more aptly associated with particular regions, microregions, provinces, terroirs, etc. Italy is no different. So, while poor southern Italians have subsisted on pizzas and pasta, the staple for northern peasants has been the ever humble, rustic and versatile polenta.

Polenta is made with yellow or white cornmeal, ground coarsely or finely depending on the region and preference. In the country, polenta is still made the tedious way using a round bottom copper pot known as a paiolo and a long wooden spoon called a tarello.

Basic polenta recipes begin with the addition of dry polenta to any simmering liquid—cream, water, milk, broths. The liquid is brought just to a simmer and then the polenta is slowly poured into the liquid while being stirred. Keeping the pot at a bare simmer, you stir or whisk until the polenta thickens to the consistency of oatmeal or cream of wheat.

Readily assuming the flavors and textures that surround it, polenta is chameleon like—served soft, firm in cake form (baked or broiled or grilled or sauteed). Polenta can replace the bread plate, or be served in lieu of the pasta course…can as easily be served as a primi (first course) or as a contorno (side dish) to accompany meat, fowl and fish. Polenta in cake form can be layered with a variety of cheeses and baked, like a torte or topped with varying ingredients much as you would bruschettas, crostinis or pizzas. Even leftover polenta can be fried and covered in butter, cheeses or sauces.

Polenta is an excellent source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and vitamin B6.

Below are 3 versions of “soft” polenta with some cake like versions to follow in another post.

POLENTA I

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C quick cooking yellow polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk, cream, stock, garlic, and thyme to a simmer. Discard garlic cloves and thyme, and remove saucepan from the heat. Let stand for 10 minutes. Place saucepan to the heat and return the liquid to a slow boil, slowly pouring in the polenta. Vigorously whisk, until it reaches the consistency of oatmeal, about 5-7 minutes.

POLENTA II

2 C chicken stock
2 C heavy cream
1 C quick cooking yellow polenta
1/2 C freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 T unsalted butter
Fresh basil, thinly sliced

Bring the stock and cream to a boil in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Slowly pour in the polenta, whisking briskly to prevent clumping. Reduce the heat to low and cook, whisking constantly, for about 10 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and it reaches the consistency of oatmeal.

Add the parmigiano-reggiano and butter, stirring gently until incorporated.

Serve topped with more grated parmigiano-reggiano and basil.

POLENTA III

3 T unsalted butter
1/2 pound fresh porcini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced on the thick side
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 C soft Gorgonzola cheese, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 t dried thyme

In a heavy skillet, heat butter over moderate heat and sauté mushrooms with salt, pepper and thyme to taste, stirring occasionally, until lightly brown. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and simmer, until mushrooms are tender and liquid reduces slightly, leaving some sauce in the pan.

2 C chicken stock
2 C water
1 C quick cooking yellow polenta

Bring the stock and water to a boil in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Slowly pour in the polenta, whisking briskly to prevent clumping. Reduce the heat to low and cook, whisking constantly, for about 10 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and it reaches the consistency of oatmeal.

Stir 1/2 cup Gorgonzola into warm polenta until smooth. Divide polenta among plates and spoon mushroom mixture on top. Strew remaining Gorgonzola on top, stirring in some so it will assimilate into the dish.

A Cupboard Not Bare

January 19, 2009

Even the most resourceful housewife cannot create miracles from a riceless pantry.
~Chinese proverb

Before traipsing into the kitchen or addressing the grill, some thought needs to be given to the provisions on hand. Not only would it be unrealistic to expect all ingredients to be locally fresh throughout the year, but the time constraints of daily life often demand an impromptu table. Having a well supplied (and periodically restocked) pantry is simply essential for home cooks to produce remarkable meals without a last minute forage at the neighborhood market. Some cupboard items can even prove superior to the fresh versions in certain seasons or preparations while others only come in pantry form.

The list below is not exhaustive, but is intended to be fairly comprehensive for the lay cook. Of course, you will tailor your pantry to suit your palate and home cuisine. However, before you reject this list due to storage size restrictions alone, please keep in mind that almost all of these items are carefully housed in the cabinets of our minimalist urban kitchen with a small frig.

Oils –- extra virgin olive, canola, peanut, grapeseed, vegetable, white truffle, avocado, walnut, sesame

Vinegars — red wine, balsamic, champagne, apple cider, sherry, port, rice wine

Spices & Herbs — black peppercorns, white pepper, green peppercorns, pink peppercorns, mixed peppercorns, cayenne pepper, salt (sea, gray, kosher), herbes de provence, fine herbes, ras el hanout, za’atar, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, tarragon, fennel seeds, fennel pollen, savory, celery seed, mustard, turmeric, cardamom, paprika, pimentón, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, curry powder (homemade) & curry paste, fenugreek leaves, garam masala, caraway seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon (sticks/ground), chipotle chile powder, ancho chile powder, star anise, sesame seeds (black, white), allspice, anise seeds, saffron threads, wasabi powder, rubs (i.e., asian, ancho chili, dried mushroom, rosemary & pepper, tandoori, basic barbeque), local hot sauce(s), barbeque (preferably near home) sauces

Grains & Pastas — rice (white long grained, wild, brown, jasmine, basmati), polenta, risotto, pastas (potentials: taglilatelle, linguini, spaghetti, penne, lasagne, orzo, tortellini, orcchietta, capellini, farfalle, capaletti, cavatappi, cavatelli, fusilli, gnocchi, macaroni, papparadelle, ravioli, vermicelli), couscous, Israeli couscous, rice (cellophane) noodles (vermicelli–bun & sticks–banh pho)

Asian –- soy sauce, shoyu, white shoyu, hoisin sauce, chili garlic sauce/paste, sriracha, nuoc mam nhi(fish sauce), nuoc mam chay pha san, hoisin sauce, red, yellow & green curry pastes, mirin, sake, coconut milk, miso pastes (white, red), oyster sauce, wasabi paste/powder, five spice, tamarind paste, mirin, rice flour, panko bread crumbs, kochujang, gochu garu, konbu

Garlic, shallots, ginger, potatoes, yellow & red onions, dried chiles

Mustards, chutneys, capers, sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, tomato paste, harissa, tahini, creme fraiche, pickles

Canned tomatoes (san marzano + homemade), stock (homemade/canned)

Legumes –- lentils (several colors + lentils du puy), garbanzos, cannellinis, white beans, black beans, navy beans

Booze — red & white wine, cognac (brandy), port wine, Madeira, sherry, eau de vie

Baking — flour, sugars (white granulated, raw cane, light brown, confectioner’s), baking powder, cornstarch, cornmeal, yeast, cocoa, dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa)

Flavorings –- almond extract, vanilla beans, vanilla extract, Tabasco, Worcestershire

Dried fruits — currants, apricots, figs, prunes, currants

Nuts –- pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, unsalted peanuts

Honeys (local, raw, unprocessed), mi-figue mi-raisin, raspberry and strawberry preserves, apricot jam, pure maple syrup, peanut butter

Dairy –- whole milk, unsalted butter, eggs, buttermilk, heavy whipping cream

Fruits –- lemons, oranges, grapefruit, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, heirloom tomatoes

Cheeses –- parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romano, gruyère, marscarpone, roquefort or gorgonzola, feta, fontina, manchego

Meats proscuitto, serrano

Spreads tapenades, caponata, hummus