Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.
~Oscar Wilde

From last year’s lucre alone, the often indifferent rich could have paid to feed the world’s famished, sometimes starving, children by some 160 times. In simple terms, they could flat eradicate poverty without pain, save relinquishing another yacht or vacation home.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, the world’s wealthiest cumulatively grew $524 B richer last year. At the same time, hourly wages for most Americans are not growing much faster than the rate of inflation.

To add some more fat to the fire, consider that wages adjusted by inflation of nonsupervisory workers in the retail trade have fallen almost 30% since the early 70’s; while the national minimum wage was raised a few years ago, it is still seriously meager by historical standards, having consistently lagged well behind both inflation and average remuneration levels; since the late 70’s real wages for the bottom half of the work force have stagnated or fallen, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have nearly quadrupled; hiking the minimum wage has little or no adverse effect on employment, while significantly increasing workers’ earnings; the wage and benefit discrepancies and wealth inequalities between CEOs and workers are simply astonishing now; in the wealthiest nation on earth, many workers are still mired in poverty; the bottom third of the American work force has seen little or no rise in inflation adjusted wages since the early 70’s; in no state in this vast country can a minimum wage worker afford a two bedroom apartment working 40 hours per week. For shame.

Happy New Year. Oh, and a simple dip below.

RADICCHIO CON RICOTTA E GORGONZOLA

1 C whole milk ricotta
1/2 C gorgonzola
1/3 C parmigiano reggiano, grated
1/2 medium fennel bulb, cored and finely chopped
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Finely grated zest from 1/2 lemon
2 t fresh lemon juice
2 t thyme leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 head treviso radicchio and/or endive, leaves separated
Thyme leaves, for garnish

In a glass bowl, stir together ricotta, gorgonzola, parmigiano reggiano, fennel, olive oil, lemon zest and juice, thyme, salt and pepper. Adjust seasoning to taste. Transfer mixture to a serving bowl and garnish with thyme leaves. Serve with radicchio and/or endive.

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The pen was put to rest for due cause. The delay since my last posting has been far from a case of writer’s cramp. Instead, my eldest, the bona fide chef of the family, was found to have a pernicious and rare lung carcinoid which necessitated a harrowing open surgery followed by a rather lengthy and agonizing hospital stay in LA. The tumor had been insidiously residing within him for several years before becoming symptomatic. As much as he tried to avoid it, the surgeon had to get medieval on his ass, leaving him with a shark bite sized incision emblazoned on his chest. Excruciating pain became a way of life for him. And now, recuperation is ongoing and long term. But, I have faith that with time his inertia will be restored, regained and will not wane.

While there is no need to belabor the details, suffice it to say the entire process has been an ordeal for all and a living nightmare for him. As parents, these somber, reflective times have been a tumult of chaotic ideas and sensations…the stuff that makes your fingernails and toenails ache.

Above all—and I mean above all—thank you dear friends and family for your benevolent, unflagging support.

The only silver lining in these dark skies was fortuitously tripping across a recently opened local LA trattoria (or perhaps osteria), Della Terra Restaurant. Affable and urbane, Della Terra also exudes that rustic but often elusive Tuscan simplicity. I already miss the preamble olives, oranges and flatbread, to make no mention of the scrumptious brick oven grilled pizza. Della Terra will no doubt soon make it on “must go” lists in sprawling tinseltown. Thank you Franco, Michael, Gerry, Renato (and the back of the house) for your gracious hospitality and eloquent eats during troubled times. To say your service was accommodating would be a gross understatement. Never once did I enter the door without a warm handshake and hearing—“How is your son?”

As you will be serving Sunday brunch in the near future, I humbly offer this radicchio with eggs & proscuitto fare as a thought and a means of thanks.

GRILLED RADICCHIO WITH EGGS & PROSCUITTO (RADICCHIO CON UOVA E PROSCUITTO)

3 heads radicchio, any imperfect outer leaves removed and quartered
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1/2 T fresh rosemary leaves, minced
1/2 T fresh thyme leaves, minced
Freshly ground black pepper

1 T unsalted butter
4 large eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 lb. (Parma or San Daniele), cut into thin julienne
1/4 lb. shelled walnuts, roughly chopped
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T balsamic vinegar

4 large eggs, hard boiled and finely chopped
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated

Whisk together olive oil, herbs and pepper.

Prepare barbeque grill to medium high heat or use grill pan heated to medium high on stove top. Brush radicchio quarters with herbed olive oil, then arrange on grill or grill pan. Cook on each side for approximately 2-3 minutes per side. You are looking to achieve slightly wilted edges. Once cooled to room temperature, roughly cut into strips.

In a large bowl, combine the radicchio, prosciutto, walnuts, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper, to taste, and toss well to coat.

Then, in a large heavy non stick pan, heat 1 tablespoon of butter over high heat until it foams and subsides. Crack 2 egg into the pan and cook, sunny side up, seasoning with salt and pepper and removing to a plate as they finish cooking. Repeat this process with the remaining 2 eggs and butter.

Divide the salad evenly among plates and top each serving with a sunny side up egg and a hard boiled, finely chopped egg and a light grating of parmigiano-reggiano.

If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.
~George W. Bush

Some foods naturally have genial, soulful connections. Think proscuitto and figs. Jocund flavors who jive…acid, tang, tart, sweet, pungent, bitter, twang, vim, pepper, fruit, earth…all meeting on one plate. This crisply textured and vibrant medley does not disappoint. A salad with spizzerinctum.

Endive, Cichorium endivia, is a slightly bitter, leafy vegetable which belongs to the daisy family and the chicory genus. One variety of endive, escarole, has broad, pale green leaves and tends to be less bitter than its curly cousin, frisée.

Should you complain about President Obama, lest we forget George “W.ar” Bush. In a parting shot at that Gallic crew who refused to support his ill conceived invasion and conquest of Iraq, the Bush administration imposed a 300% duty on Roquefort (Occitan: ròcafòrt) as one of his final acts in office. Designed as a tariff retaliation for an EU ban on imports of US beef containing hormones, the ever bellicose president decided to punish the thousands of people who herd select ewes in the harsh terrain of some 2,100 farms, all of whose livelihood entirely depended on Roquefort. Boy George and his wars on everyone and everything—from french fries to the Taliban. “(T)he answer is, bring ’em on”…one conflictual kid, even at the ripe age of 64.

As the quantity is minute, bring on your finest cold pressed, unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil.

RADICCHIO, ESCAROLE, PEAR, WALNUT & ROQUEFORT SALAD

1 C whole walnuts

Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
4 medium beets
Balsamic vinegar
Honey

1 Bosc pear, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 head of radicchio leaves, roughly torn
1 head curly escarole, cored and halved crosswise
Freshly ground pepper
1 C Roquefort cheese, crumbled

Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400 F

Spread the walnuts in a pie plate and toast for a couple minutes, until fragrant. Let them cool, then coarsely chop.

Trim ends off beets, and rinse. Halve and then arrange them in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and lightly splash them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a drizzle of honey, and cover dish tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes or so, depending on the size of the beets. When done, they should be firm, but a fork should slide in readily. Allow beets to cool uncovered, peel and slice into roughly hewn juliennes.

In a small bowl, toss the sliced pear with 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice. In a large bowl, toss the radicchio and escarole with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice; season with salt and pepper. Mound the salad on plates and top with the beets, pears, walnuts and Roquefort. No need to salt as the Roquefort brings a salty tang to the mix. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

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.

Beets & Radicchio

April 17, 2009

An appeasing and colorful aside to pizza…served on endive boats, you can jettison flatware entirely.

Despite our Fearless Leader’s aversion to them, beautifully hued beets boast a subtle, earthy flavor and are supremely nutritious. With the scientific name of Beta vulgaris, they are vegetables from the amaranth family which has been cultivated for some 4,000 years. Beets are herbaceous biennial plants with stems growing to 2-6 feet tall bearing nearly heart shaped leaves. They belong to the same family as swiss chard and spinach.

Beyond their divine flavor and ruby tint, beets are quite the health food—loaded with vitamins A, B1, B2, B6 and C. (By the way, besides the deep red variety, there are beautiful golden beets, and pink and white striated Chioggia beets.) The greens have a higher content of iron compared to spinach. They are also an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, sodium and iron.

So far, of the 55 varieties of vegetables in the new White House garden, beets have yet to make the grade. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Obama will convert.

The time to buy beets is June through October, when they are most tender. Look for unblemished bulbs with sturdy, unwilted greens.

Radicchio is a zesty and spicy leaf chicory which has been relished since ancient times. Consider using radicchio on the grill as it mellows with heat.

BEETS & RADICCHIO

2 pounds medium red beets, scrubbed, ends trimmed
Extra virgin olive oil, to toss
Red wine vinegar, to toss
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled, minced and mashed to a paste
1/2 C red wine vinegar
2 C extra virgin olive oil
2 t fresh tarragon, chopped
1 head radicchio, cored and roughly cut
1/4 C fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 C fresh beet leaves, chopped
4 ozs fresh firm goat cheese, roughly cut into cubes
2/3 C pine nuts, toasted

2 heads endive leaves, cleaned

Preheat oven to 400 F

Line an adequately sized baking dish with aluminum foil. In a large bowl, toss together the beets, some olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Place beets in a the dish and cover with foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake until tender and golden around edges, about 10 minutes more. Check throughout the latter part of the cooking process to see if the beets are cooked until tender, but still al dente. They are done when easily penetrated with a fork. Slip off skins. Transfer to a small bowl and cool. Cut into thin half moons by cutting across transversely and then vertically.

In a small bowl, whisk together with 1/2 cup red wine vinegar with the mashed garlic and tarragon. In a narrow stream, add 2 cup olive oil to emulsify, making a vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Separately toss beets and endive leaves with vinaigrette to coat. Set both aside. In an open bowl, combine radicchio, parsley and beet leaves. Toss with vinaigrette so it is gently dressed. Add beets, goat cheese, pine nutes and toss gently. Serve on open endive leaves. If additional vinaigrette is needed, very sparingly drizzle over the top.