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.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

~William Shakespeare

The sometimes dubious origin of a month’s name. April is the season of spring in the Northern hemisphere and autumn in the Southern hemisphere.

The Roman calendar changed several times between the founding and the fall of the Roman Empire. Prior to the addition of January and February by Numa Pompilius around 700 BCE, April was the second month of the Roman calendar year with March being the first. The city grew briskly, swelled by landless refugees. So, as most were male and unmarried, the then king Romulus (a character of Rome’s founding myth, and one of the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars who were cast into the river Tiber) arranged to abduct neighboring Sabine women. Of Sabine blood, his successor Numa, who was a wise even cunning leader but lived an austere life, was the legendary second king of Rome.

Numa Pompilius.jpg

Romans considered odd numbers to be lucky, so Numa plucked one day from each of the six months with 30 days, reducing the number of days in the previously defined months. Then, around 450 BCE, the month of April slipped into the fourth slot and was assigned a mere 29 days. With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by a similarly named pope in 1582, another day was added et voilà “30 days hath April,” as does September, June and November.

Though April’s derivation is not certain, a common theory is that the name is rooted in the Latin Aprilis which is derived from the Latin aperire meaning “to open” — perhaps referring to blossoming petals and buds. This coincides not only seasonally but etymologically with the modern Greek use of ἁνοιξις (opening) for the word spring. Others posit that since months are often named for gods and goddesses and Aphrilis is derived from the Greek Aphrodite, one could surmise that the month was named for the Greek goddess of love.

The month of April begins on the same day of the week as July each year, and January in leap years; while it ends on the same day of the week as December every year.

Around the 5th century CE, the Anglo-Saxons referred to the month of April as Oster-monath or Eostre-monath, a reference to the goddess Eostre, whose feast occurred during this month. Saint Bede (a/k/a The Venerable Bede), a learned monk from the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter, believed this gave root to the word Easter which is often observed then.

Bunches of jaunty green asparagus are harbingers in farmers’ markets signalling that winter has finally given way to spring.

ASPARAGI ALLA MILANESE (ASPARAGUS MILANESE)

Cold water
Sea salt
Medium asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed off

Unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large, farm fresh eggs

Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
Lemon zest

Bring a large pot with cold water to a boil. Add the sea salt and then asparagus and cook until crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain and divide the spears evenly among smaller plates or platters. Tent loosely with foil.

Heat a heavy, large non-stick skillet over medium. Heat butter and a splash of olive oil until just lightly shimmering. But, please do not burn or brown the butter. While the fat melts, crack eggs into a glass cup or saucer then slide them into the shimmering oil. Cover with a clear domed lid and adjust the heat so that the white begins to set. Begin spooning the heated fats over the eggs until the runny whites turn opaque and the yolks begin to set ever so slightly, but remain rather runny. (The white no longer clear and the yolk still loose.) Remove to a plate by simply sliding them out of the pan or use a slotted spatula. Place the egg over the bottom half of the cooked asparagus spears, and then season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Grate parmigiano-reggiano over each serving, along with some lemon zest. Serve promptly. (It is nearly peerless when that orange yolk quietly oozes onto the eagerly awaiting grassy flavored spears.)

Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.
~Alice Walker

August is National Peach Month.

Prunus persica, a deciduous tree which bears an edible juicy fruit, was first cultivated in China several thousand years ago. Peach trees are considered the trees of life in their native land where peaches are symbols of immortality and unity. Peaches traveled west via the silk road to Persia, earning them their botanical name. Peaches belong to the genus Prunus which includes the cherry and plum, all from the Rosaceae family. Once discovered by Alexander the Great, they were introduced to the ancient Greeks. Ancient Romans referred to the peach as malum persicum (Persian apple), which later became the French pêche, which then morphed into the English word peach. Spanish explorers initially brought peaches from Asia to the New World as the fruit could be grown in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Columbus brought peach trees to America on his second and third voyages. The French introduced the fruit to Louisiana while the English imported them to Jamestown and Massachusetts colonies.

While there are over 700 varieties, the two basic types of cultivated peaches are clingstone (the flesh sticks to the stone) and freestone (the stone easily separates from the flesh). They can have yellow or white flesh, which is sweeter and less acidic than its more traditional golden counterpart. The downy skin of the peach is splotched with red hues and are usually round with a pointed end, but they can also be flat and disc-shaped. The donut peach, which is flat with rounded sides that draw in toward an indented center, like a doughnut without a hole, is a descendant of the flat Chinese peach.

Even though farmers’ markets are now flooded with this divine fruit, in a couple months a good peach will be hard to find as they are distinctly seasonal. These efficient reproducers are harvested in late summer and early fall because they tend to ripen simultaneously. Peaches are pruned after most of the other fruit crops are done since they can be injured if pruned too early. It is unusually difficult to ship this fruit as microbes like fungi and bacteria can invade the thin, permeable outer skin and feast on the sugars inside, causing decay. Bruising can occur while handling and travelling. Storage also creates issues with delicate peaches. Unlike apples which can be stored up to a year in a low oxygen controlled environment, finicky peaches have a much shortened lifespan.

So, get it while you can — make good of this narrow windowed season and buy these luscious local gems, sink your teeth into the sweet fuzz and let those ambrosial juices freely dribble down your chin. Grin knowingly, then repeat.

Peaches should be stored at room temperature as refrigeration curtails flavor and fragrance. They are climacteric, meaning they that have high respiration rates during ripening and emit large amounts of ethylene gas, so the fruit will continue ripening after harvest. A large peach has fewer than 70 calories, contains 3 grams of fiber, and is also a good source of vitamins A and C.

By now, it must be quite obvious that I love the far from banal rustic nature of crisps. Below is a peach version followed by a basic grilled peach recipe.  At the end is a simple concotion of chilled wine and peaches.

PEACH CRISP

5 large ripe peaches, pitted, peeled (or not) and sliced
Juice from 1 lemon

3 T all-purpose flour
1/4 C tightly packed brown sugar
1 T granulated sugar
1 T raw sugar
1/2 t vanilla extract
Slight pinch of sea salt

1 1/4 C all purpose flour
1/2 C rolled oats
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/4 C raw sugar
1 1/4 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Toss the peaches in a large bowl with lemon juice. Add flour, sugars, vanilla and salt and gently stir to combine. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the flour, oats, sugars, and butter. Using a pastry blender or fingers, blend ingredients until coarse meal forms — soft, tender and workable.

Spread the peach filling in a medium baking dish or casserole and loosely sprinkle with the topping. Place the dish on a sheet tray and bake crisp 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Bake crisp until fruit is tender and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

GRILLED PEACHES

1/2 C honey
3 T Balsamic vinegar
1 t vanilla extract

6 firm, ripe peaches, pitted and halved

Crème fraîche or plain yogurt, for drizzling

Whisk  together honey, balsamic vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl.

Prepare barbecue grill to medium high. Brush fruit generously with some honey glaze. Grill (inner flesh side down first) until heated through, about 3 minutes on the first side and less on the other, depending on ripeness. The idea is to create nice markings on the fleshy inside, but to have the fruit retain its integrity. Arrange grilled halves, cut side up, on plates or platter, then immediately drizzle with some more honey glaze. Ladle crème fraîche or yogurt over the grilled fruit to your liking.

Pourboire:  try a classic Italian libation during the warm months.  First pit, then slice a few ripe fresh peaches, with or without the skin (your preference).  Drop the sliced peaches into a cold glass pitcher and pour in enough medium to full-bodied red wine to cover the fruit.  Allow to chill for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator.  Pour the wine and peaches into glasses and serve.  Cin-cin!

Pleb Grub — Bean Stew

December 22, 2011

We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.
~Hon. Louis Dembitz Brandeis, United States Supreme Court Justice

Given the season, a mirthful post seemed more in order, like prattling about some trendy or classic dish to grace the family’s holiday table. But, for the last few decades I have sadly read about and observed the parallel surges of excessive wealth and abject poverty which threaten to inexorably still this already declining young republic. America has allowed profligate inequality to flourish, and I felt an urge to disgorge and then stew.

America has become a blatantly entrenched plutocracy: 1% of the people take home nearly one quarter of the nation’s income, and 1% of the people control nearly 40% of the nation’s wealth.

Somber socio-economic stats, and there are more. From 1980 to 2005, more than 80% of the total increase in American income was allotted to the richest 1 percent. The ratio of the average income of the nation’s “upper crust” to the median household income has skyrocketed since The Gipper took office. The richest 1% of Americans’ household income rose 275% between 1979 and 2007, while the income of the poorest one-fifth grew 18% over the same period.

In 1965, the average CEO earned 24 times more than the average worker. Just forty years later, the average CEO in the United States receives 262 times the pay of the average worker. Starkly reduced to dollars and cents, Walmart’s CEO will earn more in the next hour than a new hourly employee will earn over the next year. Toward the end of GW’s reign, careless executives who selfishly brought our economy to brink of ruin, even those who presided over failed corporations, demanded prompt bailouts from the citizenry while continuing to gorge on obscene compensation packages including embarassingly lavish, undeserved “performance” bonuses. The financial arena, ie., Wall Street, has been particularly blameworthy. My father used to mutter that “no person is worth $1M per year.” While that sum may be a tad understated in today’s market, financial house and other CEO salaries and bonuses seem to bespeak of nothing more than bloated egos.

One third or more of Americans exist at or are precipitously close to the federal poverty level which is a paltry $22,350 for a family of four. That’s called plenty of nothing for no one. And on any given night, some 750,000 men, women, and children are homeless in this land.

When compared, income inequality in this country borders on downright shameful. The United States continues to outpace other developed economies with one of the greatest divides between rich and poor on earth. Our nation ranks near the bottom feeder end of the inequality scale keeping company with the likes of Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ecuador. Income levels here are more unequal than those in Russia, which in the last century alone has endured three popular revolutions to overthrow dreaded oligarchies, a devastating world war, and lengthy bread lines throughout. A more unequal distribution of wealth exists here than in those traditional banana republics we have so maligned in the past like Nicaragua or Venezuela. Simply put, income inequality is more severe in this country than in nearly all of West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia.

To worsen matters, while the income and wealth gaps grow here, this country continues to fall further behind other industrialized countries in education, research, health care, child well-being, technology and infrastructure investment. Lagging in these vitals, these fundamentals, while suffering from wealth disparity are ominous signs of a declining society.

The vexing schism between the ultra rich and the rest of the nation has undeniably broadened. An unsavory me-first mentality has emerged with short or no shrift given to notions of fairness and the social contract. Alex de Toqueville once observed that the genius of American society was founded upon “self interest properly understood.” This collective national empathy with an eye toward the common welfare has rapidly waned while wealth has been steadily concentrating in upper echelons. The sense of national identity in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community is on the verge of being lost. It has been replaced by a sense of inequity, sometimes even iniquity. As Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow remarked, “Vast inequalities of income weakens a society’s sense of mutual concern…The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization.”

There is precedent, as wealth inequalities existed in civilizations long since in ruin. Yet even the Roman Empire, a class structured society of haves and have nots (including slaves), had a more equitable distribution of income than current America. Historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen poured over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages to assess income distribution in the Roman Empire. Much like this country, a story of two ancient Romes emerged, one hoarding substantial wealth and the other subsiding on meager wages or facing poverty. Those who barely got by were paid just enough to survive daily but never enough to prosper. Others starved.

Professors Schiedel and Friesen concluded that when the empire was at its population zenith (about 150 CE), the top 1% of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, contrasted with the top 1% of Americans controlling 40 percent. An imperial ancient empire ruled by an emperor and elite few, based upon conquests overseas, conceived of an expected inequality of income between classes and requiring a robust slave population had less wealth disparity than today’s United States.

The recent income and wealth disparities in this country were not happenstance. In 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, a board member of the tobacco giant Philip Morris and soon a United States Supreme Court Justice, sent a confidential memorandum to his friends at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. In it, he railed against the “attack on the American free enterprise system” not just from a few “extremists of the left,” but also from “perfectly respectable elements of society.” He urged the Chamber to place the media under surveillance and also advocated that political power must be “assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination” and “without embarrassment.”

Powell envisaged new think tanks and legal foundations which when united with the Chamber and corporate America could wield immense political power. Once circulated amongst nation’s boardrooms, there was a call to arms and the Chamber arranged a task force of businesses whose charge was to coordinate this corporate crusade. The Chamber soon tripled its budget, aggressive conservative think tanks and foundations mushroomed, right-wing lobbying efforts were magnified, and political power was brandished to discourage economic equality and shared prosperity. The Repbulican Party would now begin to take a decidedly rightward lurch.

William Simon, who had served as Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, later published a manifesto entitled A Time for Truth argued that “funds generated by business” must “rush by multimillions” into conservative causes to uproot the institutions and “the heretical strategy” of the New Deal. He asked “men of action in the capitalist world” to mount “a veritable crusade” against progressives. With nearly limitless funds, they embarked on a jihad to embellish corporate rights, purchase candidates, curry legislative favor, procure lobbyists, garner power, espouse rightist ideologies, sway public opinion, amass the country’s wealth, etc. Imperiously, they have proclaimed “it worked!” But, truly did it or will it?

Economic studies suggest that rapacious income inequality leads to more financial distress. Stated otherwise, greater income equality positively correlates with stronger economic growth. An economy like America’s where each year commoners are doing worse, not better, will not succeed in the long run. This country’s income distribution has grown decidedly lopsided, and growing inequality has tranlated to shrinking opportunities. Discouragingly, the fundamental idea of upward mobility has faded, causing the proverbial American dream to disappear.

To suggest that such extreme financial inequity was neither contrived by the wealthy nor exists in today’s America are both opinions that range between naïveté and arrogant ignorance. These egregious inequalities are not only economically inimical but morally repulsive. Rapacious greed is not good—it is plunder. And please do not crassly slough fiscal inequality off as simply lower caste “envy” like a myopic, flip-flopping oligarch has. Yes, you Willard. The indigent should be take umbrage at and be righteously indignant about such haughty, heartless rhetoric.

Unless compromises are reached to explore and secure reforms to assuage this dire problem, I fear that our republic will be reduced to rubble too. Economic injustice tends to sire revolt. Equanimity and empathy, not egocentric upper class partisanship, are in desperate need.

Food calls. This is a divine winter stew that works in a pinch.

CHICKEN, SAUSAGE & BEAN STEW

2-3 Italian sausages, sliced 3/4″ thick, diagonally

5 lbs chicken parts (wings, backs, necks, gizzards, hearts)
1 1/2 lbs navy or white beans, picked over and rinsed
2 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in halves
2 celery stalks, peeled and chopped in halves
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped in halves
1 small turnip, peeled and chopped in quarters
1 medium parsnip, peeled and chopped in half
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 C chicken stock
8 C cold water

Fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high. Add the sausage and brown, about 5 minutes. Do not overcook as they will be reheated later. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Set aside. Wipe the pot out with a towel.

Put the chicken in same large pot, and add beans, onions, celery, carrots, turnip, parsnip, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper, stock and water. Bring to a boil, then skim the foam off the surface. Cover, reduce the heat to a lively simmer and cook about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. With tongs, remove the chicken pieces from pot and place in a bowl to cool some. With a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables, garlic and herbs. Discard the garlic and herbs only. Reserve the vegetables in a bowl too.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull off the meat and discard the skin and bones. There should be about 2 1/2 cups of meat. Coarsely chop the onions, celery, carrots, turnip, and parsnip. Slice the gizzards and hearts. Add the vegetables, chicken and sausage to the pot and carefully mix with the cooked beans. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook until heated, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serve in bowls garnished with fresh parsley.

Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.
~Bertrand Russell

Ancient Rome had an illustrious tradition of kinky emperors, some of whom just narcissistically railed out of control. Whimsy and revelry gone morbid.

Armed with a paranoid temperament, Caligula (37-41 AD) was widely reputed for his tyrranical cruelty, orgiastic extravagances and sexual perversities. Nero (54-68 AD), an early persecutor of Christians, was known for having captured worshippers burned in his garden at night for a source of light. Alleged to have calmly fiddled while Rome burned—a My Pet Goat moment—he also had his mother Agrippa summarily executed and stepbrother poisoned. Commodus (180-192 AD) who ruled with his father, Marcus Aurelius, held perverse sway over hundreds of concubines and terrorized Rome’s rich and famous with a murderous reign of death and torture. In the midst of his cruelties, Commodus would sing and dance, frolicking as the town buffoon on Rome’s streets. The notorious Caracalla (209-217 AD) ruthlessly murdered his brother and persecuted some 20,000 of his allies. Elagabalus (218-222 AD) married multiple times, even taking one of the sacred vestal virgins as one wife. He was rumored to have had homosexual liaisons with his courtiers and had his body hairs plucked to appear more feminine…even engaging in public crossdressing.

Enter on stage Silvio Berlusconi, the current prime minister. Facing trials on a number of scandals, his private life has become curiously linked with the phrase bunga bunga. The term is now so well embedded in the Italian language that “bunga bunga city” refers to Sig. Berlusconi’s world.

Hordes of linguists and journalists have puzzled over the origins of these words which emerged last year, when a teen Moroccan belly dancer said she had attended bunga bunga parties with other women at Sig. Berlusconi’s villa in Milano.

I openly confess to not knowing what bunga bunga means. But, Arab news sources have reported that that Berlusconi learned these harem rituals frοm hіѕ friend, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Some have suggested that the phrase comes from one of the prime minister’s favorite infantile African-connoted jokes. Other references to bunga include a masquerading hoax about the Abyssinian emperor inspecting the H.M.S. Dreadnought at the turn of the century which involved the author Virginia Woolf donning a full beard. Earlier this year in Spartacus fashion, Sabina Began, German actress and Berlusconi’s friend, even revealed to Sky Italia that she herself was bunga bunga: “Bunga Bunga is simply my nickname.”

I still do not know the definition, but have felt an urge to proclaim “I am Bunga Bunga!” It has a certain cinematic ring.

So, enough bunga bunga prattle. On to more serious fare, risotto—a marvel of the food world. There is a radiance to risotto. An elegant, yet soulful, sheen which almost causes you to bow at the waist.

RISOTTO con FUNGHI e VINO BIANCO

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2-3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 ozs proscuitto di parma or san daniele, diced finely
3/4 lb porcini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 1/2 C arborio rice
8 C chicken stock

1 C sauvignon blanc
4 T unsalted butter
1 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, almost simmering.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add the shallots and proscuitto and cook until the shallots are softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned while stirring. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes.

Then, begin the process. Add a ladleful of hot stock, and cook, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more. The rice will become tender and creamy but still al dente after about 18 minutes.

Add the wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

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.

…try the mustard — a man can’t know what turnips are in perfection without mustard.
~Mark Twain

An aside too often neglected.

True to form, the turnip (Brassica rapa) is a root vegetable of unknown origin. While it was firmly established as a domestic crop in Hellenistic and Roman times, evidence of earlier ancestry is rife with speculation. A root without established roots. Neither baby momma nor baby daddy have been firmly ID’ed.

Turnips display in a wide array of colors: red, purple-tipped, pearl, golden. Despite the rumors, they are far from plebian. For too long, turnips were treated with culinary disdain…shunned like an unwelcome relative at the table. They are earthy delights which surely deserve higher status in that sometimes damnable gastronomic caste system.

Turnips were originally called “neeps,” from the Latin word for turnip, napus, which also gave rise to the French word navet. (For reasons that seem incongruous, navet is also a pejorative French term for a bad film.)

Roasting roots makes them much more intensely flavored than boiling, frying or even steaming. The natural sugars begin to caramelize and yield sapid results. However, because of my inbred kinship with cream and cheese, my money is on au gratin.

ROASTED TURNIPS & TARRAGON

8 turnips, washed, peeled with roots and tops trimmed

4 T unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 T Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
2 T fresh tarragon leaves finely chopped
2 T Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 400 F

In a bowl, mix the softened butter, mustard, garlic, tarragon, parsley, salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large, heavy pot, blanch the turnips for about 2-3 minutes in boiling water then transfer into an ice bath. Drain thoroughly and pat dry.

With a pairing knife, deeply score incisions on the turnip tops. Work the butter mix into the incisions and all over the outside of the turnips as well.

Arrange the turnips on an oiled sheet pan without crowding them. Roast the turnips until slightly browned and softened, about 25-30 minutes. Pierce with a fork to check doneness. Season again to taste with salt and pepper necessary. Garnish with chopped tarragon.

TURNIPS AU GRATIN

2 C heavy cream
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, smashed
3 thyme sprigs
Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 fresh, plump garlic clove, peeled
4 T unsalted butter, cut into small bits
2 lbs turnips, washed, peeled and thinly sliced
2 C gruyère cheese, grated
Sea salt and freshly grounded black or white pepper
Nutmeg, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 375 F

In a heavy sauce pan, combine the cream, garlic, thyme, and cayenne. Bring the cream to a gentle boil and then remove from heat. Allow to rest for 20 minutes. Then, remove and discard the thyme and garlic.

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin or baking dish with a crushed garlic clove, and then lightly butter the dish with the end of a stick of butter. Arrange one half of the turnips slightly overlapped in a single layer. Dot with butter and sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add a second layer of turnips in the similar manner with cheese, cream and season with salt and pepper. Top with a slight grate of nutmeg.

Bake until golden, about for 35-40 minutes. Should the gratin begin to turn overly brown, cover with aluminum foil.

Allow the dish to rest at least 15 minutes before serving.