Herbs & Capers

July 9, 2011

The mind is its own place.

I began to write about how this week Colts tight end John Mackey died from frontal temporal dementia the result of multiple cerebral trauma; how cyclist Chris Horner suffered a severe concussion from a Tour crash on a narrow, ditched road forcing his confused withdrawal; how over decades hundreds of thousands of now forgotten soldiers have sustained grave head injuries, coming home afoot or in boxes. All of that rattled gray matter. The altered consciousness, amnesia, flashbacks, dizziness, seizures, ringing ears, double vision, skewed dreams, agonized psyches, malaise, deprived sleep, anxiety, woeful depression…and more. So much more than a dismissive “shake it off” or simplistic alert + oriented x 3.

Instead, my memory safely drifted to sunflowers. During a recent stage in Normandie, the peloton swept by a field teeming with these flowering heads. But, the yellow radiant blooms were turned away, shyly shunning the cameras. Yet somehow, almost bewitchingly, the brain adjusted and turned the hidden lemon flowers toward the mind’s eye. Despite reality, my mind embraced a yellow pallette.

HERB & CAPER SAUCE

1 C ciabatta or baguette, crusts removed, torn into pieces
3 T sherry or champagne vinegar

3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

1 C fresh flat leaf parsley
3 T basil leaves
1 t fresh thyme leaves
1/2 t fresh sage leaves

4 T capers, rinsed and drained
1 egg yolk

1 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the bread and sherry or champagne vinegar, and toss together, and allow sit for 10 minutes or so

Turn on a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and add the garlic. Chop more finely, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you pulse the processor. Add the herbs to the processor, and pulse several times until contents are finely chopped. Add the bread, capers and egg yolk to the bowl, and pulse the processor on and off until well blended, about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape down the sides again, then turn on and add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drizzle over grilled or roasted meats, fish, breads, and even pasta.

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…dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening.
~Art Buchwald

This Provençal comfort food exudes the melodious aromas of poultry, olives, fennel and capers that so often waft from the region’s kitchens and tables.

Capers (Capparis spinosa L.) are perennial bushy shrubs that bear fragrant white to light pink petals, and fleshy leaves renowned for the delicious immature buds which are commonly prepared pickled in salt and vinegar. Native to the Meditteranean basin, the thorny caper bush is well adapted to the sun soaked, sandy and sometimes nutrient needy soil found in the region.

Intense manual labor is required to gather capers, for the buds must be picked each morning just as they reach the proper size—before they open. Merchants categorize capers by size with the smallest non pareil often being the most desirable. However, somewhat larger buds from Pantelleria, a hot dry wind-swept speck of a volcanic island south of Sicily, are also highly prized.

Freshly picked caper buds are not an especially savory lot, but their piquancy increases after sun-drying, salting and brining. Deceptive by size, these charming, petite morsels are tart, zestful and bring earthy, tangy, citrus dimensions to dishes. A pantry without capers should sense remorse. Capers are packed in glass jars in coarse salt or vinegar brine, and so it is incumbent to thoroughly rinse before use.

BRAISED CHICKEN WITH WINE, CAPERS, OLIVES, FENNEL, & SHERRY VINEGAR

1 (3 1/2 to 4 lb) chicken, rinsed, patted dry, cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Herbes de Provence
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 dried bay leaf
2 rosemary sprigs
1 C high quality green olives, pitted (such as picholine)
1 C capers, drained and well rinsed
4 fennel branches, roughly sliced into 2″-3″ pieces
2 C dry white wine
1 C chicken stock

1/4 C sherry wine vinegar

3 T fresh tarragon or flat parsley, roughly chopped

Season the chicken liberally with salt, pepper and a couple of pinches of herbes de Provence crumbled between finger and thumb. In a large heavy deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil and butter and garlic over medium heat. But, do not allow to brown. With a wooden spatula, massage the garlic cloves into the entire pan surface. Then, place chicken in pan, skin side down; the skin should sizzle some when the pieces contact the surface. Brown chicken in batches, turning over once, 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Remove crushed garlic cloves before they brown. Set aside browned chicken on a dish or platter, loosely tented.

Reduce the heat to medium or medium low, and add the onions. Sweat onions until soft and translucent, but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook one minute more. Return the chicken to the pan, and add the bay leaf, rosemary, olives, capers, fennel, wine and stock. Cover and simmer slowly until chicken is tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Remove the chicken to the dish or platter, and tent loosely with foil. Also remove bay leaf, rosemary sprigs. Raise heat, fortify sauce with sherry vinegar and boil down rapidly until sauce begins to just lightly thicken and coat a spoon. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking.

Serve over rice, pasta or thick noodles.

I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.
~James Beard

Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is a small, shrubby perennial herb in the family Asteraceae native to a broad area of the northern hemisphere. It has a slightly bittersweet flavor and an aroma vaguely similar to anise.

Tarragon is closely related to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) which is the primary herb used to create the potent and infamous anise flavored liqueur, absinthe. Fearmongers portrayed absinthe as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug due to the finding of slight traces of the chemical thujone—misleading evidence which led to absinthe’s ban in several countries. The paranoia was stoked by social conservatives and religious zealots who disapproved of the bohemian lives led by absinthe loving artists such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Modigliani, Wilde, and Verlaine…some of the enfants terribles of their time. It must be the mysterious absinthe, they reasoned, that led them to live unconventional (God forbid!) existences and openly discuss such lofty artistic and metaphysical ideals. In a narrow cosmos, anti-absinthe fanaticism was a remainder of prejudices past, and proved a grim precusor to the unfounded intolerances of Prohibition and Reefer Madness. Such a streak of bigotry that has run through the Anglo-Saxon collective psyche over the ages…even up to the pervasive “we” vs. “they” and “good” vs. “evil” neocon chauvinisms of this century.

Fortunately, real science and clearer heads prevailed which has led to a revival of absinthe and the resumption of commercial production in the European Union and United States.

Tarragon, unlike many other herbs, was not used by ancient civilizations. While it was mentioned briefly in medieval texts as a pharmaceutical, it did not come into culinary use until the 16th century.

French tarragon, whose leaves are glossy and pungent, is considered the most prized variety in kitchens. It marries well with salad greens, chilled vegetables, fish, poultry, meats, soups, and is commonly used in tomato and egg dishes…and adds distinctive flavor to sauces, such as Bearnaise.

SHERRY TARRAGON VINAIGRETTE

2 T good quality Sherry vinegar
3 t shallots, peeled and minced
1/2 t Dijon mustard
Generous pinch sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6-8 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T fresh tarragon, finely chopped

Whisk together vinegar, shallot, mustard, salt, and pepper in a small bowl and add oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Finally, whisk in tarragon.

The olive tree is surely the richest gift of Heaven, I can scarcely expect bread.
~Thomas Jefferson

From the magical, luminous lands of Provence in southern France comes Tapenade, a prized olive based condiment…served simply with vegetables, fish, meat, eggs or on crostini or bruschetta. On a pizza topped with fresh mozzarella, tapenade reaches new heights. The paste must be made more by taste than exact ingredients in a way that the flavors are balanced and kindly commingle in an egalitarian way.

TAPENADE

2 C French brine-cured olives, such as Niçoise, pitted
2 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and chopped roughly
2 T capers, drained and rinsed
2 high quality anchovy fillets, preferably salt packed (optional, but recommended)
1/2 t fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 t Dijon mustard
Dash of brandy or cognac
6 T olive oil
Freshly ground pepper

If the anchovies are salt packed, let them stand in a bowl of milk for 15 minutes to exude the salt. Then, drain thoroughly.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the drained anchovies, olives, capers, mustard, garlic, cognac and thyme. Process in bursts to form a thick paste.

With the processor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until it is thoroughly incorporated. Season with pepper, then allow the tapenade to stand for an hour or so to allow the flavors to marry.

TAPENADE VINAIGRETTE

4 T tapenade
2 t dijon mustard
2 fresh plump garlics, crushed gently
1 t sea salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
2 T sherry vinegar

1 C extra virgin olive oil

Gently whisk together tapenade, dijon, garlic, salt, pepper, and sherry vinegar. Whisking further and much more vigoursly, slowly add olive oil to form an emulsion.

Basic Vinaigrette

February 3, 2009

Vinegar, the son of wine.
~Proverb

Like sandwiches, vinaigrettes always taste better if someone else makes them. So, have a friend or lover whisk up this simple version for you. For use on salads, cold roasted vegetables, even as a marinade for grilled chicken…you name it.

Some maintain that vinegar was discovered when wine was inadvertently left to sour. This resulting in the first batch of full bodied wine vinegar. The Talmud, a central text of mainstream Judaism, refers to a wicked son of a righteous father as a “vinegar son of wine.” The word vinegar is derived from the French word vinagere, which literally means sour wine.

Given the overt simplicity of the ingredients, good quality vinegars and olive oil are much preferred, even mandated.

BASIC VINAIGRETTE

2 T sherry vinegar
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T French Dijon mustard
Sea salt to taste

1-1 1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

Whisking gently, combine sherry and red wine vinegars, mustard and salt in a bowl. Whisking more vigorously, slowly add olive oil to create an emulsion. Taste for seasoning with a component of the food it will dress, such as a lettuce leaf or vegetable.

Pourboire: to vary, add or replace with any of the following: hazelnut oil, walnut oil, balsamic vinegar, champagne vinegar, citrus, smashed garlic, finely diced shallots, fresh chopped or whole herbs, whisked egg yolk, freshly ground pepper, white pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper…the possibilities are almost endless.

Store in a bottle or cruet in the refrigerator and shake or whisk at serving time.