Quesadillas & Secret Laws

October 19, 2016

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
~Benjamin Franklin

Unfortunately, this is posted just beyond the cusp of National Hispanic Month this year (September 15 – October 15, 2016). Yet, quesadillas are welcome at our table at whatever the day or hour.

Now, imagine that your second language is English.  Better yet, that your cradle language is English. Either way.

Still, there are “secret laws” that are unsettlingly passed without public consent or approval to anyone and all. We have been taught endlessly that Congress publicly enacts statutes candidly, but when the secretive panel known as the Foreign Intelligence Survey Court (FISA) permits the surreptitious collection of phone records, interrogation or torture procedures it somehow becomes the law of the land. Intelligence agencies issue rules and regulations on national security issues are very often not published and not made known to the public and remain “classified.” These include, inter alia, intelligence gathering and the detention, interrogation and torture of suspected terrorists.

Secret laws deny each individual the ability to comprehend constraints imposed by official conduct. In short, perilous secret laws disallow constituents to challenge accountability or to demand any form of legal or legislative transparency. Law and fact soon become an addictive blur in a what is otherwise known as a democratic society with supposedly open courts, judges, prosecutors and legislators. Now, each may act with impunity and without the thoughts, acumen, judgment or oversight of citizens — individually or collectively, before, during, or afterwards.

The last time I looked, the preamble to the United States Constitution began with “We the People” — one of our Constitution’s guiding principles, to make no mention of the due process and confrontation clauses explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights.

While quesadillas may sometimes have directed ingredients, truthfully they are an amalgam of fine leftovers here — so, whatever is recently in the fridge or pantry are fair game (so long as you do not overload), e.g., brussels sprouts, asparagus, tongue, tripe, shredded pork butt, chicken or lamb, gizzards, livers, whatever greens, leeks, green onions, thinly sliced radishes, cheeses of any and all types, fresh or dried oregano, coriander, herbes de provence, thyme, fennel seeds, chipotle peppers, chiles of any species, garbanzo beans, hominy, new potatoes, fennel bulbs, edamame, chinese peas, snow peas, peas, salmon, mackerel, sardines, shrimp, squid, mussels, et al.

QUESADILLAS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1-2 T unsalted butter

1 lb mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 T brandy or cognac
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 ozs spinach or arugula, stems removed
2-4 ozs or so, cilantro, stems removed

1-2 jalapeno chiles, stemmed, seeded, and minced

Spoonful of salsa verde

Goat cheese or chèvre, grated or broken into small pieces
Gruyère cheese, grated

8 or so flour tortillas

1-2 T extra virgin olive or canola oil
2 T unsalted butter

4 local, farm fresh eggs (1 per quesadilla), fried

Place a heavy, medium to large sauté pan over medium high heat and add 2 T extra virgin olive or canola oil and 1-2 T unsalted butter. When oil and butter shimmer, add mushrooms and as well as salt and pepper. Sauté, adding brandy or cognac until mushrooms release liquid and begin to evaporate and mushrooms begin to brown, about 8-10 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.

Combine mushrooms, greens, chilessalsa verde, and cheese in a bowl. Place a large nonstick, heavy skillet over medium to medium high heat, and add extra virgin olive or canola oil and unsalted butter until it begins to shimmer. Do not allow to burn. While pan heats, place a large spoonful of mushroom, greens, chiles, salsa verde, and cheese mixture into each tortilla and place other tortilla over the filled one so as to make a sandwich. Place tortillas in preheated heavy skillet and cook, turning once, until tortillas are nicely browned on both sides and cheeses are melted.

Top with a large, fried egg.

Serve promptly.

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A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
~A.P. Herbert

Merguez, which has Bedouin and then Tunisian and Moroccan antecedents, has some assorted Arabic spellings:  (mirkas (ﻤﺮﻛﺲ), pl. marākis (ﻤﺮﺍﻛﺲ),mirkās (ﻤﺮﻛﺎﺱ), markas (ﻤﺭﻛﺲ) and mirqāz (ﻤﺮﻗﺲ).  After the French invasion, occupation and colonization of the Maghreb (“sunset” or “west”) which are the lands west of Egypt in coastal North Africa, the lamb/mutton or beef piquante sausage naturally spread to France and elsewhere.  The Maghreb was cordoned off from the rest of the continent by the immense Sahara Desert and peaks of the Atlas Mountains also their ports, often built by Phoenicians, look out on the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.  The area was conquered and settled by the Spanish, Italians, French, Arabs, Ottomans, Vandals, Carthaginians, Romans, Phoenicians, Berbers, Islamics, Turks, to name a few at differing times.  Sadly, there is nothing like conquest to make cuisine sublime.

Merquez is often served grilled, with tajines and stews, next to couscous or lentils, and in baguettes or buns with pommes frites — now, the latter is a scrumptious charcuterie and street food both.

Not that there exist constraints or restraints by any of these culinary means — with the exception of personal imagination.

A must.

MERGUEZ

1/4 C+ extra virgin olive oil
4 pounds spinach, stems removed, washed and dried well

2 medium onions peeled and cut into small cubes
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 T fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 T harissa
Freshly ground black pepper
2 t  quatre epices (recipe follows)

2 C water
2 C chicken stock
A splash of dry white wine
1/2 lb dried garbanzo or cannellini beans, drained

2 lbs fresh merguez sausage
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook, stirring throughout, until all the spinach has wilted and browned slightly and all the liquid has evaporated, about 20-30 minutes.

Add the onions, garlic, mint, cilantro, harissa, black pepper, and quatre epices and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Pour in 4 cups water and stock and a dollop of dry white wine to the mix above, then add the garbanzos or cannellini beans. Stir, bring to a quiet simmer, and cover. Braise gently in the oven for 2 hours, or until the beans are nearly tender.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 T extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sear the merguez on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain well.

Stir the lemon juice into the beans and place the seared merguez on top. Cover and continue to braise until the beans are tender and the sausage is cooked through, about 30 minutes more. Season with salt to taste.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Use as needed, then store remainder in a tight, glass container in the cupboard.

Bon appetit!

Chard & Serrano Tartines

October 7, 2014

Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly and love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything. That makes you smile.
~Mark Twain

Thanks for the break — it was sorely needed.

The time away did bring to mind when my then wife suffered a dreadful case of jet lag upon arrival in Paris. After leaving the airport, we taxied directly to the hotel to register and check our luggage. Since it was a little after lunch, we promptly headed to a cozy bar à vin (wine bar) for a brief bite. After one glass and ordering some morsels, I noted one of her eyes began drooping and the other was half shut. As much effort as she mustered, and even with donning her glasses, she simply could not correct those big brown peepers. So, we had to eat and drink hastily in order to get her back to our room for a nap. It was truly comical, especially in retrospect. For whatever reason, I have yet to endure the same malady. Then again, time will tell.

Although not requested, I did note that this rather small, yet stylish, wine bar with undoubtedly a tiny kitchen had a savory tartine on the menu. Donc, voilà un petit quelque

SWISS CHARD AND SERRANO TARTINES

2 T extra virgin olive oil (divided in two)
1 C swiss chard, washed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 to 1 C serrano ham, sliced a tad thicker than the usual paper thin

4 thick slices artisanal, rustic bread, such as ciabatta or pain au levain
Aioli or homemade mayonnaise
Dijon mustard

Gruyère or Taleggio cheese slices, to cover

Drizzle olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat until just simmering. Add chard, season with salt and pepper, and cook until just wilted, about a minute or so. Drain and cool somewhat on paper towels and then rinse and wipe out the pan.

Now, in the same lightly oiled skillet cook the serrano over medium high heat until barely crisped, again for a minute or so. Remove and drain on paper towel.

Lay the bread slices on a sheet pan and toast lightly on both sides under broiler. Then, brush lightly with aioli or mayonnaise and dijon mustard. Divide greens among the four toasts and lay out the serrano on each slice.

Neatly top each toast with slices of gruyère or taleggio and broil for a few more minutes, until just nicely browned.

Pourboire: Tartines can be topped with other grubbery, such as spinach, baby bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, kale as well as other types of ham or bacon such as proscuitto or fine bacon lardons and a variety of melting cheeses such as fontina, brie harvarti or some cheddars and perhaps some sliced and sautéed mushrooms, or smoked salmon, or even a poached egg. Space does not permit, so just use the best judgment rule and take a peek at the fridge.

Spinach is susceptible of receiving all imprints: It is the virgin wax of the kitchen.
~Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière

While there are many variations of spinach, generally speaking, there are four main types: savoy, semi-savoy, flat leaf, and baby. Savoy spinach has crinkly, dark green curly leaves. Flatleaf or smooth leaf spinach is unwrinkled and have spade-shaped leaves that are easier to clean than the curly types. The stalks are usually very narrow and tasty. Semi-savoy is a mix of the savoy and flat-leaf. Baby spinach leaves are of the flat-leaf variety and are usually no longer than three inches. These tender, sweet leaves are more expensive and are sold loose rather than in bunches.

Savoy spinach, a/k/a curly leaf spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a cool season green which belongs botanically to the goosefoot family. It is thought to have first been cultivated in ancient Persia, later making its way to China. Ultimately, the Moors brought their beloved spinach to Spain during their several century conquest and occupation there. That began spinach’s journey across the continent.

Catherine de’ Medici, that major political and artistic mover and shaker of the 16th century, became a fervent patron of the French kitchen soon after she married Henri, Duc d’Orléans, the future Henri II of France. The arrival of this plump Italian teenager marked the nascency of classic French gastronomy, and even the revolutionary introduction of the fork to tables there. Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici was so enamored with the leafy vegetable that when she married and moved to France she not only brought her personal chefs with their exquisite techniques, but also brought her adored Florentine spinach.

The English word for this delectable green—spinach—is derived from the middle French espinache from the old Provence espinarc, which is possibly via the Catalan espinac, from the Andalusian Arabic isbinakh, from the Arabic isbanakh, and originally from the old Persian aspanakh. A delightfully tortuous linguistic path. You can almost visualize those old snaky dotted lines tracking the trek of this green on an antiquated map.

The egg strumpet in me re-emerges with this recipe. But, that is another story that I don’t have time to tell.

POACHED EGGS WITH SAVOY SPINACH

2 large scallions, light green and white parts, thinly sliced (dark green reserved)
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 T unsalted butter
1 large bunch savoy spinach, stems trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 C heavy whipping cream
4 large eggs, room temperature

Crushed red pepper flakes

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add scallion and garlic sauté until sweated, about 2 minutes. Add spinach leaves, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until spinach wilts, about 3 minutes. Stir in cream and let simmer for a couple of minutes to thicken some. Discard garlic cloves.

Carefully crack each egg into a bowl, then slide into the skillet, so they fit in one layer. Reduce heat to medium low and season with salt and pepper. Cover pan and let cook for 2 minutes, then turn off heat and let eggs rest, covered, about another 30 seconds until the whites cooked through and the yolks are runny. Season with a pinch or so of red pepper flakes and garnish with the reserved chopped scallions.

Carefully scoop eggs, spinach and sauce into shallow soup bowls over grilled or toasted artisanal bread which has been brushed with extra virgin olive oil.

Boasting a gastronomic history of some ten centuries, that Meditteranean morsel known as Catalan cuisine is stunningly simple and seasonal. A rich culinary tradition that predates medieval times, the first book of Catalan recipes was the Llibre de Sent Sovi (1324). In its own inimitable fashion, this cuisine has managed to incorporate foods that have arrived through contact with other cultures via trade, conquest or regional cross-pollination. Catalan food can boast of aristocracy and nobility yet remain rustic…where both complexity and modesty are revered.

CATALAN SPINACH

1/4 C raisins

2-3 T olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/4 C pine nuts
1/4 C dried apricots, thinly sliced

2 spinach bunches (about 2 lbs), stemmed, well rinsed and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place raisins in bowl. Cover with hot water and let soak 10 minutes in order to plump, then drain.

Heat olive oil in heavy large Dutch oven or a deep heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Discard garlic. Increase heat to medium high and add pine nuts until they are slightly brown. Then add raisins and apricots and toss to coat well. Add the spinach and sauté very quickly for a couple of minutes until it begins to wilt, stirring occasionally. Remember, the spinach will continue to wilt off the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Trois Timbales

August 8, 2009

Nah. Not the percussive type—those shallow, conjoined Cuban drums differing in pitch with metal casings that are usually struck with drumsticks instead of hands, and masterfully played by artists like Eguie Castrillo or Tito Puente.

Rather, these timbales are the culinary version which resemble a quiche or torte without a crust, somewhat like a soufflé. Derived from the French word for “kettle drum,” luscious timbales are a custard like dish baked in an oversized thimble shaped mold. In savory clothing, these delicate little asides are usually baked in individual ramekins and served hot with or sans sauce. Timbales can be prepared with vegetables or meats, served as an appetizer, side dish or even a main course at lunch or brunch…there are also sweet versions.

SPINACH TIMBALES

4 C (already cooked) fresh baby spinach, washed and dried
8 large organic eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 C bread crumbs
4 T shallots, peeled and grated
1 C Gruyère cheese, grated
1 C heavy whipping cream
2 gratings of nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F and bring water to a simmer in a large saucepan.

Fill a large heavy pot or Dutch oven with water, bring it to a boil, add salt and then spinach leaves. Blanch the spinach for approximately 30 seconds—or until they turn a brilliant green. Remove the spinach from the pot with a slotted spoon and drain through a sieve. Immediately plunge the leaves into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Meticulously squeeze out all of the excess water with paper towels, and then let cool to room temperature. Finely chop the spinach. Spinach cooks down dramatically, so you should have 4 cups as your final product.

Combine and whisk together the chopped spinach, eggs, bread crumbs, parsley, cheese, whipping cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour into ramekins or custard cups about 4/5 full. Place the filled ramekins into a baking dish or roasting pan. Pour the simmering water around the ramekins until it comes halfway up the sides. Bake until a toothpick comes out almost clean, about 25 minutes. Let rest for about 15 minutes, then invert onto individual dinner plates.

CORN TIMBALES

4 C fresh corn, stripped from the cob
8 large organic eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 C bread crumbs
4 T onion, peeled and grated
1/4 C tarragon, finely minced
1 C Emmental cheese, grated
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F and bring water to a simmer in a large saucepan.

Combine and whisk together the corn, eggs, bread crumbs, parsley, cheese, whipping cream, salt and pepper. Pour into ramekins or custard cups about 4/5 full. Place the filled ramekins into a baking dish or roasting pan. Pour the simmering water around the ramekins until it comes halfway up the sides. Bake until a toothpick comes out almost clean, about 25 minutes. Let rest for about 15 minutes, then invert onto individual dinner plates.

MUSHROOM TIMBALES

8 oz mushrooms (such as Shittake, Oyster, Porcini), cleaned and sliced
3 T unsalted butter
2 t chopped shallots
1 t chopped garlic
1 C whole milk
3 whole organic eggs plus one egg yolk
1/2 C heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 T tarragon, chopped

Preheat oven to 325 F.

In heated skillet add butter until hot, then mushrooms. Just cook partially. Add shallots, garlic, tarragon and cook until tender. Salt and pepper to taste and strain reserving liquid. Set aside.

In bowl, lightly beat eggs and yolk. Stir in cream. Add milk and reserved mushroom liquid. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper and nutmeg. Stir gently to combine.

Lightly butter ramekins and place in a deep baking dish. Ladle equal amounts of the mushroom mixture into molds. Carefully add hot water to deep baking dish about half way up the molds.

Bake 25 minutes or until timbales feel firm and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted. Let rest for about 15 minutes, then invert onto individual dinner plates.

Scrambled Eggs — An Art?

February 14, 2009

A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.
~Samuel Butler

So often we see abused plates of scrambled eggs—overcooked, hard, lumpy, devoid of life. Mastering simple scrambled eggs is more difficult than it may seem. I have even heard some chefs remark that they occasionally test new cooks by watching them prepare a plate of scrambled eggs. The perfect scrambled egg is a rare dish demanding a gentle, slow and low cooking process. The end product is all about texture.

Do not overwhip, but you must impart air to the eggs so they will be fluffy. The air bubbles in the liquid become coated with protein and the molecules uncoil (denature). When whisking, tilt the bowl so the whisk moves diagonally across the plane—the eggs should be well mixed, but not overly frothy. Overwhipping can unravel the protein molecules in the eggs.

According the venerable James Beard, using liberal amounts of butter is crucial. Also lodged somewhere in the recesses of my hippocampus is a chef’s hint that a very, very small pinch of cayenne pepper can “wake up” the eggs. As with such obscured memories, I do not remember the source of that truc.

It is essential to use low, gentle heat when cooking eggs, as egg protein begins to thicken at only 144°F, which allows them to toughen rapidly.  So, create tiny curds.

When the eggs are soft and shiny, remove from heat before they are too set as they will continue cooking. Remember the adage…“when eggs are done in the pan, they are overdone on the plate.”

SCRAMBLED EGGS

3-4 T butter
3 T cream cheese
6 fresh, organic, free range eggs, meaning the hens are raised on pastureland
1 T crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Small pinch of cayenne pepper, dried
Small pinch of white pepper, dried
Small pinches of herbes de provence and thyme, dried

Melt the butter and cream cheese in a heavy non-stick skillet. Combine the eggs, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, white pepper, herbes de provence and thyme and a dollop of crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream in a glass bowl and whisk briskly — just until the yolks and whites are combined.

Pour into the non-stick skillet, with the heat on low. With a wooden spatula, gently stir the egg mixture, lifting it up and over from the bottom as it thickens. Stir away from the sides and bottom of the pan toward the middle. Continue to stir until the desired texture (a mass of soft curds) is achieved. They thicken, dry out and toughen very quickly toward the end, so if you like them soft, fluffy and moist, remove them from the heat a little before they reach the desired texture—they will continue to cook after being removed from both the stovetop and the pan.

Pourboires:
Also known as the egg white, albumen accounts for about 2/3 of an egg’s liquid weight. It contains more than half the egg’s total protein, niacin, riboflavin, chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium and sulfur. The albumen consists of 4 alternating layers of differing consistencies. Egg white tends to thin out as an egg ages because its protein changes in character which is why fresh eggs sit up tall and firm in the pan while older ones tend to spread out.

Scrambled eggs have many faces, allowing for a variety of permutations and combinations with other ingredients. Consider adding cooked proscuitto, serrano ham or pancetta, chives, sliced sauteed mushrooms, diced sauteed chicken livers, ricotta cheese, goat cheese, barely wilted spinach, fresh tarragon or other herbs…the possibilities seem endless.

Finally, for an even creamier version, try 5 whole eggs coupled with 2 egg yolks.