L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani. (We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians).
~Massimo d’Azeglio

Unification (Risorgimento) was a 19th century political, and socio-cultural movement that aggregated a patchwork of unique states of the peninsula into a single kingdom of Italy. Although many scholars dispute the dates, it is likely that conservatively the process began with the downfall of Napoléon Bonaparte followed by the 1815 Congress of Vienna and ended in 1871 when the country’s capital moved from Florence to Rome…except for the Vatican which became an independent state inside the city. In between that half century, much happened throughout Italy. (I could not begin to discuss the entirety of the movement here.)

For centuries, the Italian peninsula was a politically, culturally and linguistically fragmented conglomeration of neighboring states. Local dialects and regional power conflicts abounded. Although Italy still remained splintered through the mid 19th century, the concept of a united country then really began to take root. With nationalist fervor ignited, pervasive arisings occurred in several cities, mostly advanced by adherents such as professionals and students and often directed at Austrian rule. Giuseppi Garibaldi, a native of Piedmont-Sardinia, also cobbled together the then southern peninsular states into the unification process. With French resources appropriated to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Napoléon III ordered his troops out of Italy. Then, the final thrust for unification was orchestrated by an adroit diplomat, Piedmont-Sardinia’s Prime Minister, Count Camillo di Cavour. Through many struggles — regions, nations, leaders, peoples, wars, revolts, skirmishes, and strifes — Italian risorgimento was finally achieved in 1871.

Italy celebrates the anniversary of risorgimento each semicentennial (every 50 years).

The risotto rendition below is a tad tardy for this farmers’ market season, but likely there still will be some heirloom tomatoes making their final curtain call. Certainly, though, the same recipe can be used during next year’s iteration (and afterwards) when fresh corn ears, ripe heirlooms and basil leaves together grace the stalls. Thanks, locals.

RISOTTO WITH CORN, TOMATOES & BASIL

2 medium to large, local sweet corn ears

8 C chicken stock, seasoned

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C yellow onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 lb heirloom tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded and diced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1/2 C dry white wine, e.g., sauvignon blanc
3-4 T unsalted butter, cut into tabs
Freshly grated Parmigiano-reggiano cheese

3 T fresh Italian basil, cut into chiffonade

Remove corn kernels from cobs and set aside the kernels in a bowl. Simmer the cobs in stock for 20 minutes. Remove from stock and discard. Bring back to a gentle simmer over low heat, with a ladle at hand.

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy skillet or Dutch oven until shimmering and not smoking. Add onion and a pinch of salt, and cook gently until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and arborio rice and cook, stirring, until grains of rice separate and begin to slightly crackle, a minute or so. Stir in heirloom tomatoes, and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until tomatoes have reduced slightly, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Add wine and stir until it has evaporated and has been absorbed by the arborio rice. Begin adding simmering stock, a couple of ladlefuls at a time. Stock should just cover the rice and should be simmering, not too slowly but not too aggressively. Cook, stirring often, until just nearly absorbed. Add another ladleful or two of the stock and continue to cook in this mode, adding more stock and stirring when rice appears to dry. You do not have to stir continually, but often and vigorously. After 10 minutes, add corn and continue for another 10 minutes. When the process is complete, the arborio rice will be just tender but al dente (chewy to the teeth), which is about in 20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste, if necessary.

Add another partial ladleful of stock to the arborio rice. Stir in butter and parmiggino-reggiano for about a half minute and remove from heat. The admix should be creamy. Top with basil and serve somewhat promptly in shallow soup bowls with spoons.

Hidden in the glorious wildness like unmined gold.
~John Muir

A dried pantry must.

Wild rice is a grain harvested from four species of grasses from the genus Zizania. This now esteemed delicacy here has been historically gathered in both North America and China.

A pretender of sorts, wild rice is not truly a member of the rice family, although it is a grain producing grass, Oryza sativa, whose wild progenitors are Oryza rufipogon and Oryza nivara. They remain close cousins however, sharing the tribe Oryzeae. Wild rice grains have a chewy outer sheath with a tender inner grain that has a slightly vegetal flavor.

The plants grow in rather shallow and clear water in ponds, small lakes and slow flowing streams. Rising above the water surface, the flowering head is rooted in soft, mucky sediment with clusters of green, ribbony leaves which are tapered and float on the surface with stalks growing some 3 to 10 feet tall. The grain is eaten by ducks and other aquatic critters (as well as humans, of course).

Three species of wild rice are native to North America: Northern wild rice (Zizania palustris) is an annual plant native to the Great Lakes of North America, the aquatic areas of the boreal forest regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; Wild rice (Zizania aquatica), also an annual, grows in the Saint Lawrence River and on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States; and Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) is a perennial plant found only in a small area along the San Marcos River in central Texas. One species is native to Asia: Manchurian wild rice (Zizania latifolia), a perennial native to China.

Difficult to grow commercially and notoriously tedious to harvest, it was reaped from boats in open water, using beating sticks to knock the mature grains into holding containers. Now though, much of these water grasses are actually cultivated rather than harvested wild. Like other grains, wild rice must be winnowed to separate the chaff from the grain. In the box or bag, this dried whole grain commonly comes from Minnesota or Wisconsin and is high in protein, the amino acid lysine and dietary fiber, and low in fat — second only to oats (quinoa was third) in protein content per 100 calories

This black gold seems underused in many kitchens and cozies well with roasted, sautéed, and grilled meats, poultry or fish.

WILD & WHITE RICE PILAF

1 C wild rice
1 T unsalted butter
1/2 medium onion, peeled and minced
2 1/2 C chicken broth
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Pinch of dried thyme, crumbled between finger & thumb
1 bay leaf

2 C long grain white rice
1 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 t olive oil
1 t sea salt
4 C chicken broth or water

Heat the butter in a small saucepan. Add the onion and sauté for 2-3 minutes on medium heat, stirring. The onion should only sweat, become translucent, and not become brown. Add the wild rice and mix well, so that all grains are coated and they become somewhat translucent. Add the broth and the seasonings. Bring to a simmer, then cover tightly and cook for 50 – 60 minutes. For firmer texture, decrease cooking time, and for more tenderness, increase the cooking time. But, you should shoot for an al dente finish.

Try not to uncover the pan during the cooking process. Once the desired texture has been reached, remove from heat and discard the bay leaf. Drain excess liquid and fluff with a fork.

In the meantime, prepare long grain white rice (which takes less time). Place the rice in a large saucepan with the butter, olive oil, and salt, and chicken broth or water. Bring to a boil, uncovered, and then reduce the heat to the low and tightly cover the saucepan. Again, try not to uncover the pan while cooking. Cook for about 20 minutes and the rice is done when small dimples or holes appear on the surface, sometimes called “fish eyes.”

Fluff the white rice, combine the wild rice and long grain white rice together, then serve this exquisite biracial mélange. Then again, you could present this firm-sassy-wild-black grass alone.

Pourboire: sautéed mushrooms or other suspects could be added to the mix.

Life loves the liver of it.
~Maya Angelou

‘Tis the season of faith and piety, right? You know, the three magi bowing before baby Jesus, the supplicant Dickensian Tim Cratchit with his tiny crutch and papa Claus. Nah, probably more like the days of buying, indulgence, inebrity, gluttony, and more consumption. Then repeat. The seven deadlies run amok. So agnostics and atheists alike, during the holidays perhaps you should shelve your skepticism and come forward to become a liver believer. I joined that sacred sect long ago.

Sidled up to silky scrambled eggs, perched atop tomato rubbed bruschetta, over polenta, nestled with capellini alfredo, rice pilaf or hearty and hued lentils, the much maligned but ever versatile chicken liver is flat heavenly–and that was just a short list. Savor these divine orbs, and you will be genuflecting, even tebowing (god forbid), in no time. Praise be to them.

SAUTEED CHICKEN LIVERS

2 lbs chicken livers, halved and trimmed

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 C shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C apple cider vinegar
2 C chicken stock, reduced by half

1 T unsalted butter, softened
1 T all purpose flour

Fresh tarragon or parsley leaves, chopped

With your fingers, knead together the softened butter and flour in order to create a beurre manié

In a small saucepan, reduce the chicken stock by half to 1 cup.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Drop the chicken livers into a sieve and carefully lower them into the boiling water. Stirring some, allow to blanche for about 20 seconds. Remove and allow to drain.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium high until foaming but not browning. Add the livers in one layer, salt and pepper, and sauté for about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with paper towels.

Add the sliced shallots to the same skillet and sauté over medium heat until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the apple cider vinegar bring to a gentle boil, and reduce to a glaze. Add the reduced stock and bring to a lively simmer. With a whisk, add the beurre manié a dollop at a time until the sauce thickens. Add the livers and warm.

Serve strewn with chopped tarragon leaves.

Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.
~George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday was somewhat of a Breton train wreck at the Tour…some ten crashes, two riders out, a half dozen injured, and egos bruised. The peloton snaked through stingy ancient roads, then formed eschelons to evade the ever changing Atlantic winds that buffeted the riders as they approached a perilous finish.

Today, the pack licked their wounds and began their invasion of Normandie—a rolling 226 km conquest from the architecturally awesome Dinan to the idyllically Norman Lisieux. One long day in the saddle. With the exception of sprinters, discretion seemed to form the better part of valor on this stage. While braving heavy rain showers and even some hail, riders appeared more cautious and teams seemed to be conserving energy for the decisive mountain stages. Yet the ride was not without breakaways, drama and a scintillating dash to the finish.

Tomorrow, the race begins to turn south in a transitional stage, one of the flattest of the Tour. After that, the climbs become more somber, with several less than leisurely rides in the lofty Massif Central, before more menacing stuff unfolds in the sheer Pyrénées and the Alpes. There, men will be separated from boys.

For now, the Tour is in Normandie, home of sublime cream, butter, cider, veal, duck, offal, sausages, Calvados, Camembert, Livarot, and Pont-l’Évêque.

Poule au pot has a tradition that harkens back to the Middle Ages. Then, cooks used heavy cauldrons placed directly on open fires, either on the hearth or in the farm yard. They would cover everything and anything in water and let the whole meat and vegetable mix simmer for a long time. While poule au pot may have originated in the Béarn region in southwest France, birthplace of the bon vivant king Henri IV, it is typical Sunday country fare across France.

There are as many variations as there are kitchens, some stuffed (often with chopped giblets, Bayonne ham, bread) and others not (as below).

LA POULE AU POT A LA NORMANDE

1 – 4 lb chicken
Chicken broth and water, in equal parts

Bouquet garni (bundled parsley, thyme and bay leaf)
3 carrots, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1/2 celeriac bulb, trimmed, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
3 medium turnips, trimmed, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
2 medium leeks, light green/whites, washed, cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1 fennel bulb, cored, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1/2 plump, fresh garlic head, separated into cloves with skins intact

1 C crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Fresh tarragon or sage leaves, chopped

Truss chicken and place into a Dutch oven. Cover with chicken broth and water and add bouquet garni, carrots, celeriac, turnips, leeks, fennel and garlic. Bring to a hearty boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer for 1 1/2 hours or so. Cook until chicken is tender and juices run pale yellow when pierced from the thigh. Transfer chicken to a cutting board, breast side down, and carefully transfer vegetables to a large bowl using a slotted spoon. Loosely tent both with aluminum foil. Discard bouquet garni.

Return pot to stove over medium high heat and bring stock to a vibrant boil. Cook until liquid has reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to low, vigorously whisk in crème fraîche and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste.

Meanwhile, untruss chicken and cut into serving pieces. Ideally, the meat should almost fall from the bone but the pieces should remain firm, moist and tender.

Serve chicken over rice pilaf or couscous in shallow bowls with the vegetables…or with small new potatoes or noodles which have been simmered in the broth toward the end of the cooking cycle.

Spoon over crème fraîche sauce to your liking and garnish with fresh tarragon or sage.

Pourboire: Classic poule au pot is usually made without the addition of crème fraîche or cream. You be the boss.

I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.
~Salvadore Dali

I meant to embark on the fierce rivalry that has ensued between the United States and Mexico which will be renewed in the title match of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Gold Cup tonight in Pasadena (formerly in Mexico). The U.S. and Mexico have shared 9 of the 10 Gold Cup tournament championships. Much is at stake as the winner qualifies for the next Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Confederations Cup, a preview of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But, what follows seemed more important.

Squandering billions monthly on an ineffective policy with lives, capital and truth as casualties sounds just like the misguided Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, this ongoing waste derives solely from the failed four decade long War on Drugs. As the Global Commission on Drug Policy recently concluded, “…the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.” The esteemed, independent 19-member panel was comprised of former heads of state, a former U.N. secretary-general, a business mogul and even an author. They did not mince words. The report issued by the commission and delivered to the White House and Congress calls on governments to promptly end the criminalization of marijuana and other controlled substance use. They urged that governments instead institute drug policies based on methods empirically proven to reduce crime, lead to better health, and promote economic and social development. Drug users who are in need should be offered treatment, not incarceration.

The commission—which included George Schultz, who held cabinet posts under Presidents Reagan and Nixon and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker—is particularly critical of the United States, which must change its drug policies from those guided by anti-crime, “lock ’em up” approaches to ones rooted in health care and human rights. By financing domestic law enforcement to the exclusion of treatment, our government has wrongly focused on punishment rather than supporting prevention. That myopic approach comes as little surprise in this reactionary land.

The fiscal costs of this so-called war have been staggering. As recently as 2008, a study authored by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that legalizing drugs alone would inject almost $80 billion a year into the U.S. economy. Over $20 billion has been directly spent on the purported War on Drugs in the first half of this year alone. Then, there is the shameful stat that the United States has 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s inmates are housed in our overflowing, understaffed prisons. Too often, these joints are far from correctional or rehabilitative, but instead focus on punitive measures which only serve to rend the human spirit. A great percentage of these prisoners are drug offenders, caught up in a deeply flawed agenda. This makes little mention of the concomitant creation of a racially disparate and societally displaced underclass many of whom now have shattered and scattered families, criminal records, no voting rights, no income sources, and suffer severly limited educational and job opportunities. Once on the street, their futures are bleak.

After over 40 years, over 40 million arrests and over a trillion dollars imprudently spent, is it not time to shelf this misconceived war on drugs as another failed experiment? This move has been much too long in the making.

As the report declared, “(T)he global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the U.S. government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.”

On to some south of the border fare for tonight’s match…

CILANTRO, CUMIN & LIME RICE

2 C long grain white rice
2 C chicken stock
2 C water

2 T canola oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 C chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 t dried cumin seeds, lightly roasted then ground
Zest of 1 fresh lime
Juice of 1 fresh lime
1 pinch sea salt

In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook about 5 minutes or until the onions are translucent and the garlic only lightly golden. Add the rice, stir with a wooden spoon to coat well, and cook for 1 minute.

In a small bowl gently mix the chopped cilantro, cumin, lime zest and juice. Add the stock and water, cilantro/lime mixture and salt. Bring to a boil, stir and decrease the heat to low.

Cover and cook for about 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed and those telltale “fish eyes” appear on the surface. Remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes.

A Paean to Pudding

February 15, 2011

Another V-Day has bitten the dust to the tune of some $18+ billion in uxorious sales. Thank you again, beloved Hallmark.

On a more pagan note, in ancient Rome many celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from February 13 to 15. Drunken men sacrificed goats and dogs, skinned them, then whipped young women with their hides. For reasons earlier thought unknown, the ladies lined up for punishment. Actually, many believed this would render them fertile. Then, in a precursor to the proverbial bowlful of keys and match.com, a lottery was held where young men would draw the names of mates from a jar—a coupling which would last for whatever the carnal duration. Are we one curious species?

The origin of this one day holiday for lovers is muddled. (1) Some claim that in the third century, Emperor Claudius II summarily and simultaneously executed two men named Valentine on this day of fertility and love. (2) Others assert that when Emperor Claudius determined that single men made more devoted soldiers than those with family, he outlawed marriage for young men to cull his crop of potential legionnaires. Sensing the injustice of the decree, a Roman priest named Valentine defiantly performed marriages for young lovers in secret. Once Valentine’s covert nuptials were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be promptly beheaded. (3) One more version contends that while imprisoned, Valentine may have even sent the first such greeting. Valentine was entranced by a young girl who may even have even been his jailor’s daughter. Blind and deaf, she visited him regularly during his confinement in an era when conjugal stays were likely permitted. Before his death, he wrote her a letter, which he signed “From your Valentine.” At any rate, not much is known of Valentine except his name, and that he was buried at the Via Flaminia north of Rome on February 14.

Enter the Catholic Church, whose occasionally miscreant priests canonized the love martyr(s) in order to “christianize” the earlier pagan rituals.

RICE PUDDING

3 C whole milk
4 cardamom pods, cracked
2 cinnamon sticks
1 1/2 C short grain rice, such as arborio

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/3 C raw (turbinado) sugar
1/4 C golden raisins
1/4 C sliced almonds
Pinch of sea salt

2 eggs, beaten
1 t vanilla

In a large, heavy saucepan, add milk, cardamom, cinnamon sticks and rice. Bring to a simmer, cover and gently cook until rice is quite soft, about 40-50 minutes. Remove cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and discard. Add lemon zest, sugar, raisins, almonds, and salt, stirring to dissolve. Then, add beaten eggs and vanilla, stirring until mixture is slightly thickened. Remove from heat. Allow to rest as the pudding will thicken further.

Serve warm or cold.

Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook.
~Chinese proverb

Another culinary history debate? Another being of undecided ancestry? Another grain in progenitor limbo?

Some claim rice was introduced to Mexico during Spanish colonization via the galleon trade route from Manila to Acapulco, known as the Nao de China. The story goes that over a millenium before, marauding North African Moors acquainted the Iberian peninsula with rice which ultimately led to this Mexican import centuries later. Others, however, fervently assert that the region’s earliest rice cultivars arrived in slave ships from West Africa. Is this yet another example of black history erased? There are ethnographic, historic and genetic markers supporting, fusing and refuting both theories which just cannot be fully fleshed out here. Common threads exist though: conquest, occupation, ships and food.

Polemics aside, rice is and has been extensively cultivated in Vera Cruz, Campeche and other flood plain regions in Mexico. The two basic varieties of rice grown in Mexico are Sinaloa (long grain) and Morelos (short grain), joined by a number of sub-versions.

Arroz a la Mexicana does differ from Spanish rice, although some use the names interchangeably. The Mexican version derives its reddish hue from tomatoes, while Spanish rice is tinted with saffron.

This is simple, almost requisite, table fare. A traditional rice sidled up to tomatoes, onion and garlic all blithely bathed in broth. This version adds a poblano chile and carrot—maybe even peas or giblets if the urge strikes.

The initial browning is essential and imparts a rich, nutty flavor to the rice.

MEXICAN RICE (ARROZ A LA MEXICANA)

3 C chicken broth

2 T canola or extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 C long grained rice
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 15 oz can high quality peeled tomatoes, drained and seeded
1 t cumin, toasted and ground
Pinch of sea salt

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 large poblano chile, roasted, peeled and chopped
1/2 C chicken giblets, chopped (optional)

Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Heat chicken broth to a gentle simmer.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add rice and onion and cook, stirring, until both are just lightly browned, about 7-10 minutes. During the last minute, add the garlic.

Purée the tomatoes in a food processor or blender. Add the puréed tomatoes, cumin and salt to the browned rice mixture and cook for a minute, stirring. Add the warm broth, carrot, poblano chile and optional giblets. Stir, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Cook until the rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Resist the urge to peek, but the rice is done when small dimples appear on the surface, sometimes called “fish eyes.” Set aside off heat, still covered, to allow the rice to absorb the rest of the moisture in the steam and swell, about another 10-15 minutes.

Add cilantro to the rice, fluffing with a fork. Serve.