Words are all we have.
~Samuel Beckett

Did I say that right?

Just a slight variance in intonation can lead to a near scandalous difference in linguistic meaning, often making proper enunciation vital. For instance, fico is an Italian noun, which translates in English to that sweet and succulent fig. Diction demands this word be pronounced in a distinctly masculine way so that it finishes with a marked and unequivocal o. Be wary, since if lazily uttered like figa or fica then you have slangily yet openly referred to vagina or vulva…a bilingual blunder.

Similarly, the next time you peruse a menu at that trendy trattoria in Rome, New York or home, and that primo piatta of penne yanks your chain, take care how you address the waiter or hosts. Penne is the plural form of the Italian penna, derived from the Latin penna (meaning “feather” or “quill”). Tubular, diagonally cut penne are produced in two main variants: penne lisce (smooth) and penne rigate (furrowed), the latter having ridges.

In the Italian tongue, a doubled consonant (here “nn”) significantly affects pronunciation. In phonetics, this is referred to as gemination — when a spoken consonant is pronounced for an audibly longer period of time than a short consonant. The effect is to shorten the preceding vowel and lengthen the consonant itself. With lengthened stops, the obstruction of the airway is prolonged, somewhat delaying release. Thus, the word penne should be pronounced as pen’-neh or ˈpe(n)-(ˌ)nā. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, long consonants are normally written using the triangular colonːas in penne [penːe]. This seemingly subtle difference in pronunciation may be difficult for English speakers to appreciate and reproduce, however to Italians the difference is quite patent and even affects meaning.

Also, do remember that the letter “p” in English is often aspirated, resulting in an extra puff of air along with the pronunciation of the consonant. This never occurs in Italian.

Although the unsophisticated often fail to discern the difference between correctly pronouncing the double “nn,” Italian ears definitely do. If pronounced as pene without shortening the first vowel and lengthening the consonant “n,” you are referring to the word penis. So, be a touch couth and avoid ordering penis at the table.

PENNE RIGATE WITH SAUSAGE, TOMATO & CREAM

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 lb Italian pork & fennel sausage, uncased and crumbled

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/3 medium carrot, peeled and finely shredded

One 28 oz can of San Marzano tomatoes, chopped (retain juice)
1 T tomato paste
1 small rind of parmigiano-reggiano
1/4 C dry red wine
1 t red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bay leaf
Bouquet garni of fresh parsley, thyme and oregano sprigs

3/4 C heavy whipping cream

1 lb penne rigate pasta
Fresh basil leaves, whole or chiffonaded
Parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated

Capers, rinsed and drained (optional)

Using kitchen scissors, chop tomatoes while still in can.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then add sausage and cook, stirring to break up large chunks, until meat is browned and just cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer meat to a bowl lined with paper towels using a slotted spoon and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook the onion, stirring some, until softened and translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and carrot, sauté and stir occasionally another 1 minute or so.

Stir in the tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, rind, red wine, bay leaf and bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 30-40 minutes. The sauce will thicken to a porridge consistency. Remove and discard the rind, bay leaf and herb bundle. Adjust seasoning to your liking.

Add enough cream and bring the tomato sauce to a simmer, stirring, then add drained sausages for a few minutes to heat. The sauce should be pinkish in hue.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large, heavy pot of generously salted boiling water according to directions until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, then drain pasta in a colander. Add to the tomato sauce in the Dutch oven and toss to coat, adding pasta water if necessary to moisten.

Serve with grated parmigiano-reggiano, basil leaves and optional capers.

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(New Orleans food is) delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.
~Mark Twain

GW “Bushism” as an inspirational speaker? Is this reality or an eerie subconscious image? George Bush is now pawning himself off as America’s Top $19 Motivational Orator (and that offer goes for an entire office). It is Halloween season so this must be the black cat’s meow…adorned in a costume with a cheesy bright plaid jacket and bad shoes. Speak to us, oh wise one—but, someday please become acquainted with your cradle language, Mr. Bush.

It seems almost decades ago that former President Bush delivered a prime time address to the nation from Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans over two weeks after cruel Katrina churned the city and displaced a million people. He had just emerged from another of his lengthy cowboy role-playing-woodcutting sojourns at the Crawford ranch only to do a flyby peek out of a speeding Air Force One portal over the ravaged region.

On that evening in the French Quarter, displaying his usual feigned braggadocio, Bush arrogantly strode to a podium in Jackson Square to assure the people: “We will do what it takes.” Really John Wayne? To put it mildly, his speech was born of pretense and wholly lacked his promised action—what he did do was little to nothing. He flat dropped the ball and those less silver spooned than he were cruelly forgotten and left to suffer. Perhaps his legacy will suffer a similar fate.

The Big Easy, The Crescent City, The City That Care Forgot. Not quite like the more homogenous English settlements on the Massachusetts and Chesapeake Bays on the Atlantic side, New Orleans served as a cornucopian cultural gateway, where peoples from France, Spain and Africa melded disparate customs and cuisines. New Orleans has garnered and guarded its own special ways…ensuring that English was not the prevailing language, that Protestantism was scorned, public education unheralded, and democratic government untried. All the while its distinctive cuisine has reigned supreme.

A word on the word. Much like its city of origin, the word jambalaya has mysterious roots. Some suggest that it evolves from the French jambon (ham) coupled with a la (in the style of) while others assert that jambalaya comes from the Provençal word jambalaia, meaning a “mixture” or “blend” and also connoting a pilau (pilaf) of rice.

JAMBALAYA

2 t sea salt
2 t white pepper
2 t dry mustard
2 t gumbo filé
2 t cumin
2 t black pepper
2 t dried thyme

4 chicken leg thigh quarters
3 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil or duck fat

3/4 lb tasso or high quality smoked ham, diced into 1/4″ cubes
3/4 lb andouille sausage, cut into 1/4″ slices

1 C red bell peppers, chopped
1 C green or yellow peppers, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
1 C celery, chopped
1 1/2 C yellow onion, peeled and chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced

6 sprigs thyme, stemmed and finely minced
3 bay leaves
1 C canned San Marzano tomatoes, chopped with juice
1 T tomato paste
1/3 C dry white wine
1 t red pepper sauce
1/4 t hot pepper flakes

2 C long grain rice
4 C chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Green onions, chopped (for garnish)

Combine seasoning mix ingredients (first 7 items) in a small bowl, then rub over chicken. Retain any which is not used for later. In a large heavy Dutch oven, heat butter and olive oil or duck fat over medium high heat. Add chicken pieces and sauté until brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove, set aside and tent. Add the tasso and andouille, and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the peppers, onions and celery and sauté until the onions begin to soften and become translucent; then add leftover seasoning mix and garlic and cook several minutes more. Do not brown.

Now, add the tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, chicken stock, red pepper sauce, pepper flakes, bay leaves and thyme along with the tasso and andouille sausage. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and continue to cook until flavors are completely blended, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice until well coated. Reduce heat and simmer for about 8-10 minutes. Add the stock and chicken, bring the mixture to a gentle boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, over medium low heat until the rice is cooked al dente, about 15-20 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve garnished with green onions.

…rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe.
~King Hassan II

Al Maghreb means “furthest west” or “where the sun sets,” as when the Arabs first arrived in northern Africa in the 7th century, the lands of present day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were considered to be the outermost western region in the world.

Morocco is situated on the northwest coast of Africa at an intersection of and bordered by Algeria and Western Sahara, the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea…its northernmost tip nearly touches the Iberian peninsula. So, it is little wonder that these lands display a captivating cultural mosaic with traditional cuisine borrowing culinary influences from the indigenous Berbers, invading Arabs, as well as more recently French and Spanish colonialists.

Generous hospitality and custom are the touchstones of Moroccan entertaining, and it often centers around food. Guests are often treated to an abundant tiered feast served at a low communal table covered with brightly colored cloths while seated on pillows. The central meal is usually served at midday. A ritual of handwashing over a basin is performed before serving with perfumed water sprinkled on the right hand as Moroccans eat using the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand only. (Food eaten with your fingers tastes better, remember?) Savory homemeade bread is also offered for use as a utensil.

The resplendent meal is served in several profoundly aromatic courses and culminates in a palate cleansing mint tea.

This succulent lamb dish and the accompanying couscous makes immediate use of the recently posted recipe for Ras El Hanout (08.11.2009)…certainly by now some has made its way into your pantry. The complex, colorful aromas created by the luscious fresh lamb, varied spices and dried fruits will pervade your abode through the night.

MOROCCAN LAMB SHANKS WITH DRIED FRUITS & COUSCOUS

4 1-1 1/4 lb lamb shanks, not trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-6 T Ras El Hanout (North African spices)

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, halved across and then quartered lengthwise
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 T tomato paste
1 C dry red wine

1 28-ounce can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
3-4 C chicken stock
1/2 C dried figs
1/2 C dried apricots
1/2 C pitted prunes

Preheat oven to 450 F

Season the shanks with salt and pepper and then rub the Ras El Hanout spice mix all over the surface, massaging it into the meat some.

Place the shanks, standing heavy side down and narrow end up in a large, heavy Dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot. Roast in the oven, uncovered, for 1 hour. Transfer lamb to a platter or baking dish and loosely tent.

Place the Dutch oven or pot on the stove over medium high, and deglaze briefly with a little red wine, scraping up cooked bits off the bottom. Reduce to medium heat and add olive oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking the onion and carrots and a couple minutes or so later the garlic and season with salt and pepper and a pinch of Ras El Hanout. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about a total 4 to 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and wine and cook another 4 or 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, chicken stock and dried fruits to the casserole; and then nestle the lamb shanks in the liquid. Cover the pan and return it to the oven. Bring to a simmer and braise, basting occasionally, until the meat is quite tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven and again transfer lamb to platter and tent. Strain the sauce into a bowl, gently pressing on the vegetables and skim off any fat. Reserve the vegetables for serving. Return the sauce to the Dutch oven or pot and boil over high heat until reduced to 1 cup, about 10-15 minutes. Keep sauce warm.

Mound the couscous somewhat off center of each large dish or platter. Arrange the lamb shanks atop the reserved vegetables slight atop and to one side of the couscous and spoon over with sauce. Have a bowl of Harissa (04.02.09 post) on the table for passing should some want heat.

COUSCOUS WITH ALMONDS, CURRANTS AND HERBS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T green onions
1 T Ras El Hanout
1/4 C whole almonds toasted, coarsely chopped

1 c instant couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, warmed
1/2 t lemon zest

1/2 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

In a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat add olive oil. Reduce heat to low and add the green onions, Ras El Hanout, and almonds and sauté gently until softened and slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Let sit for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the currants, mint and cilantro. Fluff again with a fork. Toss gently to combine.