For ….we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips.

~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Another seasonal dish that poses noël well on a family table. This year, I may even bow to the temptation of offering a merry, merry menu for the upcoming fête. That festive notion almost attains Martha-like disquietude. Chalk it up to another one of those poorly intuited late night passing thoughts which so often fall well short during saner deliberations over a sunrise cup of joe.

Speaking of darkness, the other night it was hard to overlook a gaudy, flashing front lawn display across the street from a recent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve meal. Eerily splayed across the yard were santas, sleighs, reindeers, angels, snowmen, et al., all mechanically flickering in red and green yuleish disunion. More disturbing was the inexorable xmas dirge droning from the yard speakers to all the neighborhood until late into the night…as if they assumed that everyone would jollily join lockstep in their personal plastic fantasy. What have we done to render these holidays so dysfunctional?

On to food (a convenient escape). A root vegetable closely related to the carrot but even richer in vitamins and minerals, parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) indeed look like a pale colored, fat, broad-shouldered version of their brethern. Native to the Mediterranean basin, parsnips have been relished for centuries and may have been cultivated in ancient Greece. The word parsnip derives from the Latin pastinum, a kind of fork, because they produce short tine-like roots. The ending was modified to -nip as it was incorrectly assumed to be botanically related to the turnip which is actually a member of the mustard family.

Choose parsnips that are firm with a good creamy color without spots, blemishes, cuts, or cracks. They should have a good, uniform shape (about 4″-8″ in length) and should not be limp or shriveled. Avoid ones that are particularly large since they may prove to be tough.

Parsnips have a similar sweetness to carrots and impart a lovely nutty flavor to the potatoes. The sage lends an earthiness.

MASHED POTATOES & PARSNIPS WITH SAGE

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks
1 lb parsnips, centers cored out, peeled and roughly cut into chucks

8 whole sage leaves, finely chopped
6 T unsalted butter

1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
4 T unsalted butter
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place potatoes and parsnips in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce heat to a gentle boil and cook until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small sauce pan over medium high heat, melt butter. When it stops foaming, add chopped and whole sage leaves. Cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.

When done, drain potatoes and parsnips well, return to pot, add milk, sage butter, additional butter, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—whatever is your preference. The butter, milk and cream amounts may need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Pourboire: For an even finer and spry texture, finish these off with a hand held (not mechanized) dough hook.

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Gaul is subdued.
~Julius Caesar writing the Roman Senate on his victory over Vercingetorix

A sumptuous stick-to-the-ribs speciality of the Auvergne region in south central France, a bucolic land of abrupt volcanic plateaus, plunging cascades, verdant meadows (and carbo-loading potato dishes). Audrey Tautou, who played the winsome and waifish Amélie Poulain in the acclaimed film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie), was born and raised in Auvergne. In France, many consider her as the typical Occitan Auvergnate.

Auvergne was also home to Vercingetorix, the renowned chieftain of the Arverni who united otherwise diverse Gallic tribes in a relentless revolt against Roman armies during the last phase of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. An astute warrior, he defeated Caesar in several skirmishes including the battle of Gergovia and adopted a scorched earth policy—retreating to heavy, natural fortifications while burning hamlets behind to prevent Roman soldiers from using their abandonded lands and shelter. Vastly outnumbered though, Vercingetorix finally relented and surrendered to Caesar after being defeated at the famed, lengthy siege of Alesia (near present day Dijon) in 51 B.C. He was imprisoned and tortured in the Tullianum for five miserable years, was paraded through the streets of Rome and then summarily executed.

Millennia later, shamefully brutal rituals still perservere in some self proclaimed noble and civilized societies. Profoundly sad to say.

Vercingetorix is often hailed as a notable progenitor of French pride, passion, resilience and resolve.

Suit your mood…the first aligote version is a touch more rustic and textural, the second elegant and smooth. Yet both have that celestial courtship of earthy potatoes and nutty, buttery cheese with a salaciously molten finish.

SMASHED POTATOES ALIGOTE

3 lbs russet potatoes, halfway peeled and quartered
Sea salt, for water

2 T sea salt
2 T freshly ground pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 t white pepper
1 stick+ (8 T) butter, room temperature

3/4 C heavy cream
1/2 C milk

12 ozs Tomme, Gruyère, Cantal or Comté cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes

Chives, minced (optional)

Warm cream and milk either in microwave or in a pan on the stove.

Put potatoes into a pot with liberally salted cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat some and gently boil about 15-20 minutes, or until tender—a fork should easily pierce the kids. Undercooked potatoes do not mash properly. Drain water from potatoes in a colander and return to still warm pot. The additional time in the pot dries them a bit so they absorb the fats better.

In stages, add cream and milk, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and white pepper. Use a potato masher to smash the potatoes, and then a strong spoon or dough hook to beat further, adding more milk and cream if necessary to achieve a coarse consistency, being careful to leave in some lumps. Whether coarsely smashed or mashed smooth, do not overzealously beat the potatoes or they will become like glue or paste.

Remove from the heat, add the cheese, and stir until it melts (if the cheese is not especially ripe, you might have to return the pan to the stove over very low heat). Season to taste and serve.

Top with minced chives, should you so please.

PUREED POTATOES ALIGOTE

3 lbs Russet potatoes, washed and scrubbed
1 1/2 to 2 C whole milk
3 to 4 (24-32 T) sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pads
Sea salt
Freshly ground white and black peppers

12 ozs Tomme, Gruyère, Cantal or Compté cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes

Place the potatoes in a large heavy pot of salted water. Simmer over medium high heat until a fork easily pierces them, around 30 minutes. Drain in a colander.

In a heavy saucepan, heat milk until just about to boil. Remove from stove.

Peel the potatoes, then pass them through a finely gridded food mill. Place the potatoes in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon, stir the potatoes thoroughly in order to dry them some. Add the butter, a couple of tablespoons at a time, still stirring vigorously, until butter is entirely incorporated. Slowly add most of the milk while stirring, reserving some for later if needed.

Again pass through the finest grid of the food mill into another large, heavy saucepan. Stir vigorously throughout, adjust the amounts of milk and butter to your preferrence. The texture should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from the heat, add the cheese, and stir until it melts (if the cheese is not especially ripe, you might have to return the pan to the stove over very low heat). Season to taste and serve.

Potato Purée

May 8, 2009

I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.
~Nora Ephron

This method is indeed a labor of love, but—elegant and silky, this homey dish will awe your table. The ratios and amounts of butter and milk may vary some according to the potato, time of year, and your tastes.

POTATO PUREE

3 lbs Russet potatoes, washed and scrubbed
1 1/2 to 2 C whole milk
3 to 4 (24-32 T) sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pads
Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper
White truffle oil (optional)

Place the potatoes in a large heavy pot of salted water. Simmer over medium high heat until a fork easily pierces them, around 30 minutes. Drain in a colander.

In a heavy saucepan, heat milk until just about to boil. Remove from stove.

Peel the potatoes, then pass them through a finely gridded food mill. Place the potatoes in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon, stir the potatoes thoroughly in order to dry them some. Add the butter, a couple of tablespoons at a time, still stirring vigorously, until butter is entirely incorporated. Slowly add most of the milk while stirring, reserving some for later if needed.

Again pass through the finest grid of the food mill into another large, heavy saucepan. Stir vigorously throughout, adjust the amounts of milk and butter to your preferrence. The texture should be smooth and creamy. Add salt, freshly ground white pepper and a moderate drizzle of truffle oil. Stir vigorously and serve immediately. Truffle oil can be quite potent, so a light hand is recommended.

Fried Bird

April 8, 2009

The light delectable tapas behind us, I felt the urge to offer some heartier fare.

Frying food, including chicken, is both an antiquated and timeless cooking method…going back to ancient cultures such as Egypt, Rome and Asia, even medieval Europe. For instance, Apicius mentions sweet and savory fritters in his classic Roman cooking text even though he does not detail the cooking methodology. This widespread early birth of fried food is no surprise, as dredging foods with flour and spices then frying tenderizes and enhances flavor.

In the 19th century, fried chicken emerged as a deeply rooted staple in the American South with many claiming that Scottish immigrants brought their tradition of deep fat frying chicken to these states. At the same time, the efficient cooking process was well adapted to the plantation life of African-American slaves, who were sometimes allowed to raise chickens…introducing seasonings and spices that were earlier absent in Scottish cuisine.

Whatever the origin, fried chicken often provokes strong emotions and opinions about technique.

Although not crucial, this recipe entails soaking the fowl in a brining solution before beginning the actual cooking process. Briefly (and inadequately), brining alters cellular structure so that more water than usual is retained while the meat is denatured. As the meat cooks, the heated proteins will begin to reduce tightly and exude juice at a lower rate, producing a more tender piece of meat. We hope.

When brining, be sure to use the appropriate container, such as glass or plastic. Aluminum is not a good choice because the salted water and enzymes in the meat combine, creating a chemical reaction with the aluminum which adversely affects flavor.

FRIED CHICKEN

1 free range, organic fryer chicken

Brine solution:
3/4 C honey
12 whole peppercorns
6 sprigs thyme
6 sprigs rosemary
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3/4 C lemon juice
1 part sea salt to 8 parts cold water, enough to cover chicken

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 C all purpose flour
2 T garlic powder
2 T onion powder
2 T sweet paprika
2 t cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper

1 quart buttermilk
2 T hot chili sauce (Sriracha)

Peanut oil
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bunch fresh sage
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Prepare the brine solution by combining all ingredients and stirring well in a large heavy pot; bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then cool completely. In a large bowl or container, cover the chicken entirely with the cooled brine solution. Refrigerate, covered, for 4 to 8 hours. Rinse and pat dry. Cut into eight pieces and season with salt and pepper.

In a large shallow platter, mix the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and cayenne until well blended and then season with pepper. In another platter, combine the buttermilk and hot sauce with a small whisk.

Drain the chicken and pat it dry. Dredge the pieces, a few at a time, in the flour mixture, then dip them into the buttermilk; dredge them again in the seasoned flour. Set aside and let the chicken rest while you prepare the oil. If possible, let stand 1 hour on parchement paper.

Add about 3 inches of peanut oil to a large deep heavy pot. Add the thyme, rosemary, sage, and garlic to the cool oil and heat over medium-high heat until the oil registers 340 to 350 F. The herbs and garlic will perfume the oil with their flavor as the oil comes up to temperature. Skim the fried herbs out of the oil and set aside. Remove garlic and discard. Do not allow the garlic to burn.

Working in batches, carefully add the chicken pieces 3 or 4 at a time. Fry, turning the pieces once, until golden brown and cooked through, about 12 minutes for dark meat and 8 minutes for breasts. When the chicken is done, remove from pan and allow to drain on paper towels. Season some with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces. When serving scatter the reserved fried herbs over the top. Serve hot or room temperature.

Serve with mashed potatoes (see Smashed Potatoes post) and green beans with finely diced garlic.