You’re enough to try the patience of an oyster.
~Lewis Carroll

Since the early 17th century, the sometimes covert, yet prestigious l’Académie Française has been printing official dictionaries and regulating the French language which was not really unified until around World War I (1914-1918). Before the early 20th century tribal, provincial, and regional tongues and texts flourished in France. Recently, l’Académie proposed some spelling reforms (les réformes orthographes) by barring some uses of the beloved circumflex (accent circonflexe) sometimes dubbed “le petit chapeau” or Asian conical hat that adorns the top of certain French nouns and verbs.  Indicated by the sign ^, it is placed over a vowel or syllable, almost giving a poetic flair to the word, sentence, paragraph via pronouncement — even meaning (e.g., mûr “mature” mur “wall”).

These spelling changes were approved by the body in 1990 and then promptly forgotten or ignored.  Apparently, very few took notice then.

The notion was to generally ban circumflexes over the letters “i” and “u” (e.g., boite and brule) with some exceptions.   This linguistic move met with genuine public outrage, sober and sometimes furious discourse and even a popular movement called je suis circonflexe. One of the phrases often heard in the uproar was nivellement par le bas (“a dumbing down”) by removing the circumflex from certain letters.    The purist pressure mounted until l’Académie rendered its proposals for circumflex omissions optional.

The accent circonflexe is one of the five diacritical marks used in the French language and can also be seen in Turkish, Afrikaans, Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Portuguese, Swedish and Vietnamese writings.  The other four diacritics in French written script, besides l’accent circonflexe, are l’accent aigu (marché), l’accent grave (très), la cedille (garçon) and le tréma (aïoli).

Circumflexes are applied in the “nous” (we) and “vous” (you) passé simple (simple past) conjugations of all verbs, and in the “il” (he) conjugation of the imparfait subjonctif (subjunctive imperfect) of all verbs.  Over time, silent letters were also dropped so those lost souls (especially “s’s”) have a circumflex over the preceding vowel even though the missing letter reappears in some derivative words (e.g., forêt vs forestier).  Some 2,000 words utilize circumflexes in the French language (about 3% of the native lexicon).

Even though the school texts make the circumflex spelling changes discretional, it appears that le petit chapeau may still reign and will still sit atop such words (letters) among so many others:

âcre, âge, âme, apparaître, arrêt, bâtard, bâton, bête, bien-être , bientôt, brûlée, bûcher, château, connaître, côté, coût, crêpe, croître, croûte, dépêche, dîner, diplôme, disparaître, enchaîner, enchâsser, enquêter, être, extrême, faîte, fantôme, gâteau, gîte, goûter, hâte, honnête, hôpital, hôte, hôtel, huîtres, impôt, intérêt, jeûne, maître, mâture, même, mûr, nôtre, pâté, pâtissière, pêche, plutôt, poêle, prêt, prôse, prôtet, ragoût, reconnaître, rêves, rôti, symptômes, tâches, tantôt, tempête, tête, théâtre, traître, vêtements, vôtre, forêt, fraîche, fenêtre…

This is by no means a final adieu.  There is little doubt circumflexes will be imposed here — both are correct, n’est-ce pas (avec ou sans)?

OYSTERS ON THE GRILL WITH HERB BUTTER

16 T unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temperature or nearby
4 T fresh herbs, minced (tarragon leaves and stripped, cored fennel bulbs)
2 t lemon zest, freshly grated
2 T lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1-2 t cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 dozen (24 or so) fresh, “local” oysters

Place the softened butter and the remaining herbs, lemon and spices to a medium size bowl. Use a large spoon to cream (or place into a food processor fitted with a metal blade) the ingredients together until well blended. Serve immediately or preferably store in the frig.

If you save the butter for later — which likely should be done — wrap it up in plastic wrap in the shape of a log and refrigerate overnight until stiff. To use, just unwrap and slice discs from the chilled butter log and bring to room temperature on waxed or parchment paper.  Then, place on warm oysters and then re-grill briefly, as below.

Place the oysters on a medium high grill, flat side up.  (Remember to hold your open palm about 3″ above the hot grate, and medium high is reached when the pain demands you retract it in 2-3 seconds.)

Cover with hood and cook until they open, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the oysters to a platter, carefully keeping the liquor inside. Remove the top shells and loosen the oysters from the bottom shells. Top each oyster with a pad of compound butter and return the oysters in their bottoms to the grill. Again, cover the grill and cook until the butter is mostly melted and the oysters are hot, about 1 minute.

STEAMED OYSTERS WITH WHITE WINE & HERBS

2 dozen (24 or so) “local” oysters
Equal amounts of fish or chicken stock and water

1 C dry white wine
1/2 C tarragon leaves
1/2 C thyme leaves
2 t cayenne pepper

Bring water and stock to a boil in a heavy stock pot. Place oysters, wine and herbs in a steaming tray until done and shells start to open, about 3-5 minutes — quickly pull them off the heat and shuck.

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Chicken + Tomatoes + …

December 26, 2015

If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens.
~Grandma Moses

If you can, wait for heirloom tomato season.

This is just basic fodder and should become a seminal staple — thrifty yet damned delish. It all may seem primitive, unadorned, but this dish, although humble, is not meager in the least.

4-6 local (unfrozen) chicken thighs with skin on and bone-in
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-3 T dried tarragon

3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

6 T peeled and finely sliced shallots
3 T plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 28 oz canned tomatoes, drained and chopped (or better yet, a glass container of heirloom tomatoes from a recent harvest)

1/4 C red wine vinegar (aceto di vino rossa)
1/4 C fine capers, drained or unsalted, depending how prepared
1/4 C chicken broth
2 bay leaves

1 C dry white wine, like Gavi, Orvieto or Verdicchio
1-2 T good tomato paste

1/4 C fresh tarragon leaves

Pat thighs dry well with paper towels.  Allow to reach room temperature and gently dredge the chicken thighs with sea salt, black pepper and dried tarragon. Drop the smashed garlic into the olive oil and butter in a large heavy pan over medium high. As the oil and butter begin to shimmer, discard the smashed garlic and sauté the chicken thighs, skin side down, until lightly browned. Turn and cook for about 5 minutes per side. Remove and tent the bird pieces with foil.

Then, make a sauce with the shallots and garlic, cooking briefly, for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, wine, tomato paste, bay leaves and stock until it all cooks down some, stirring with a wooden spatula to dissolve the pieces in the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil, reduce, and return the chicken to the skillet, then cover with a lid bringing the mix to a simmer for about 18-20 minutes or so. Discard the bay leaves.

To serve, strew with fresh tarragon leaves and place over pasta, orzo, rice, you name it — grain or green.

Pourboire:  if desired, add dijon mustard and/or crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream to the sauce or use differing seasonings on the chicken.

Et voilà, mon passé n’est plus qu’un trou énorme. (And so, my past is nothing more than an enormous hole.)
~Jean Paul-Sartre

Out of my windows, I have already watched the repair of two separate sink holes which could really swallow cars and apparently were created by faulty storm sewers and water mains.

Aged structures such as bridges, roads, dams, storm sewers, water mains, energy, schools, railways, aviation, waterways, levees, waste, drinking water — each of these systems are so old, and in such dire need for overdue funding, repair or replacement that America’s report card from our own American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) stands at a D+. There are some one in nine bridges in this country that are structurally deficient. These are our own experts.

Two years ago, there was a need for some $4 trillion to fully inspect and work on these crumbling projects (in the last month, the House has passed a bill which creates merely a $300 billion budget for these critical priorities). Public health and safety demand re-structure, but unfortunately our Congress lags woefully — those faceless lives and limbs just do not matter. Sadly heartless and indifferent, there has been little empathy for suffering or public health in our Capital.

In August, 2007, alone a large portion of the interstate bridge in Minneapolis horrifically crashed into the Mississippi River during the traffic rush leaving some 13 killed and 145 injured. After recent heavy downpours in South Carolina, many dams collapsed and 19 people died in the flooding. During this spring, an Amtrak train derailment killed eight and injured hundreds more. Driving underneath or over old bridges, or on potted roadways or watching ancient water mains gush thousands of gallons over our roads are flat stunning.

My eldest son made something like this dish sweetly for us, as I have before and afterwards too — but this is a decidedly different version. Yet, still so sapid and scrumptious.

SAVORY PANCAKE(S)

1 C+ all purpose flour
1/2 t sea salt and the same of freshly ground black pepper
8 large local eggs
3/4 C whole milk
2 T fresh thyme leaves, minced
2 T fresh tarragon leaves, minced

6 T unsalted butter
1 C Gruyère cheese, grated
Coarse sea salt

Heat oven to 425 F

In a large glass bowl, whisk together flour, salt and pepper. In a separate glass bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. Whisk wet into dry until just combined. Stir in thyme and tarragon.

Melt the butter in a heavy ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Let the butter cook until it almost browns, about 5-7 minutes, then swirl skillet so that butter coats bottom of pan.

Pour the entirety of batter into the skillet and scatter cheese and coarse sea salt over the top. Bake until puffed and golden, about 25 minutes and serve.

…but not taught to the tune of a hickory stick. The ways we unwittingly age ourselves.

I was briefly hijacked by another project and the pre, mid and post holiday revelry. Now it’s retour au train-train quotidien as the calendar bluntly reminded me. So, without further ado and the usual palaver, behold some root cellar fare to serve on a chilly evening.

RISOTTO WITH TURNIPS & PARSNIPS

3/4-1 C medium parsnips, prepped as below
3/4-1 C medium turnips, prepped as below
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

7-8 C chicken stock

Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1/2 C dry white wine, e.g., sauvingnon blanc

1 t fennel seeds, roasted and ground
3 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Fresh tarragon leaves, stems removed (not chopped)
3/4 C Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 400 F

Peel the parsnips, quarter them lengthwise, and remove the tough core with a paring knife. Cut into 1/2″ shapes. Peel the turnips, cut lengthwise and also cut into 1/2″ shapes. Place cut roots in a large glass bowl and coat lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange both roots on a sheet pan or in a roasting pan. Consider lining the sheet or roasting pan with aluminum beforehand.

Roast until tender and slightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes for the parsnips and a little longer for the turnips. Pierce with a fork to check doneness. Remove from the oven, season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside, tented.

Meanwhile, in a medium heavy sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, nearly simmering.

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven, add the onion, and sauté over moderately high heat until it softens and becomes translucent. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the alcohol evaporates.

Then, begin the beguine. 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. Do check by tasting a spoonful.

Remove from the heat, gently yet thoroughly fold in the turnips, parsnips, fennel, butter, tarragon, and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so.

Mound in the center of shallow serving bowls and serve with spoons.

Pourboire: this same calendar proclaimed ce sera mon année as well! Does that mean a year of boundless creation, flukish wealth or certain death?

Life loves the liver of it.
~Maya Angelou

‘Tis the season of faith and piety, right? You know, the three magi bowing before baby Jesus, the supplicant Dickensian Tim Cratchit with his tiny crutch and papa Claus. Nah, probably more like the days of buying, indulgence, inebrity, gluttony, and more consumption. Then repeat. The seven deadlies run amok. So agnostics and atheists alike, during the holidays perhaps you should shelve your skepticism and come forward to become a liver believer. I joined that sacred sect long ago.

Sidled up to silky scrambled eggs, perched atop tomato rubbed bruschetta, over polenta, nestled with capellini alfredo, rice pilaf or hearty and hued lentils, the much maligned but ever versatile chicken liver is flat heavenly–and that was just a short list. Savor these divine orbs, and you will be genuflecting, even tebowing (god forbid), in no time. Praise be to them.

SAUTEED CHICKEN LIVERS

2 lbs chicken livers, halved and trimmed

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 C shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C apple cider vinegar
2 C chicken stock, reduced by half

1 T unsalted butter, softened
1 T all purpose flour

Fresh tarragon or parsley leaves, chopped

With your fingers, knead together the softened butter and flour in order to create a beurre manié

In a small saucepan, reduce the chicken stock by half to 1 cup.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Drop the chicken livers into a sieve and carefully lower them into the boiling water. Stirring some, allow to blanche for about 20 seconds. Remove and allow to drain.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium high until foaming but not browning. Add the livers in one layer, salt and pepper, and sauté for about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with paper towels.

Add the sliced shallots to the same skillet and sauté over medium heat until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the apple cider vinegar bring to a gentle boil, and reduce to a glaze. Add the reduced stock and bring to a lively simmer. With a whisk, add the beurre manié a dollop at a time until the sauce thickens. Add the livers and warm.

Serve strewn with chopped tarragon leaves.

Oh, Baby! Artichokes

September 16, 2011

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

~Luis Buñuel

While memory is often altered to suit self and others (as if life then stands explained), we carry our youth through life. Our early impressions doggedly remain, however spun later to placate others. Sometimes correcting unjust misperceptions or often simply revising the past to fit the present. Thankfully, food has stasis and lacks this kind of delusion. Food adorns a plate honestly without demand or compromise, and sometimes even dominates conversation, imagination. I have been smitten by these green thistles since childhood…at first infatuation, then a torrid tryst and finally an abiding love that has perservered. And at least with artichokes you can rinse and carve away the bitterness.

Despite the misnomer, luscious baby artichokes are not infants. Rather, they are fully mature perennials that grow closer to the ground than their rotund partners, sheltered by fronds overhead which effectively stunts their growth. Artichokes are meticulously planted and harvested by hand. At full blossom, the plants spread to some 6 feet in diameter and reach a height of 3-4 feet. The fields are maintained in perennial culture for some 5-10 years with each cropping cycle launched by cutting back the tops several inches below the soil to stimulate development of new shoots. Sometimes called “stumping,” this is timed to initiate a new harvest.

These tender baby morsels are coveted by chefs thanks to their ease of prep and plating beauty, whether sautéed, roasted, braised, grilled, steamed, or fried. Unlike with larger globes, the inner fuzzy choke does not develop making the plant almost fully edible.

Usually available throughout the year they have a peak spring season, and then a smaller crop is reaped in autumn. Select small, tightly closed, firm, heavy, evenly green artichokes. Avoid dry looking thistles that are browning or too open or gaping.

SAUTEED BABY ARTICHOKES WITH HERBS

Juice of 1 lemon
Cold water
12 baby artichokes

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 fresh sage leaves
1/4 C fresh tarragon leaves, loosely packed
1/2 C fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
Small pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1 T capers (optional)

Rinse the artichokes under cold water. This will remove the natural thin film that can give the choke a bitter taste. Then, snap off the outer layer of leaves until you reach the pale, yellow-green layer of petals—sort of half-green at the top and half-yellow at the bottom. Trim off the stem and pare all remaining dark green areas from bases as they can prove bitter. Cut about 1/2″ off the tops of the artichokes and then cut them in half lengthwise.

To prevent browning, soak the trimmed artichokes in cold water acidulated with lemon or vinegar. This also loosens dirt that may have settled between the leaves. Drain the artichokes well and press between kitchen or paper towels to remove most of the water.

Place a heavy, large sauté pan over medium high heat, then add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. (Please be aware that the water residue will cause spatter when the artichokes are added to the hot oil.)

Add the artichokes in batches to the heated olive oil and toss quickly to sear. Add the garlic, herbs, red pepper flakes, black pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the artichokes are tender, caramelized and slightly crisp at the edges, about 8-10 minutes. Do not burn the garlic—it should be light golden. Season with salt, very lightly sprinkle with grated parmigiano-reggiano, and strew with a few capers.

Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.
~Mark Twain

Decision fatigue. That mental chisel which chips away at rational choice. The brain strain that afflicts both rich and poor, those slogging through work’s quagmire, agonizing at the mall or mired down at home. Different from what is typically perceived as physical fatigue, it takes an insidious toll on the brain. Researchers have noted that over time it depletes the mind’s energy, leading to erratic choices and dubious decisions. Faced with navigating a ceaseless influx of decisions upon decisions, many look for shortcuts and some begin to act impulsively while others resist change and do little. Even the mere act of resolving potential tradeoffs may prove cerebrally exhausting. Innovation and creativity often lag. Willpower wanes. Choosing threads, wheels, colors, fabrics, channels, deals, gadgets, abodes, mates and more…all can foster tired, vulnerable minds which is the paralytic price paid for our dizzying overabundance of options. Well, with the exception of partners which usually presents either arid or florid choices.

The human brain is a remarkably pliant organ, but it is not without limits. Much like a muscle, when it becomes depleted, the brain loses efficiency. But, unlike other body parts, the brain usually fails to appreciate when an onslaught of decisions renders it fatigued. As with depression and other mental disorders, the very organ that is supposed to protect against harm is the same organ which is disabled. The often unrecognized tired mind struggles to ascertain what to retain and what to disregard, often failing at both, and then rueful choices follow.

Decision fatigue even plagues home cooks pondering a simple meal. Such an array of options. What sounds most appealing? What to buy or what is even available at the markets? Should the meal be lavish or frugal? Are there compromises to consider? What app(s), entrée and sides should be served? What types of prep are most apt given the basic menu and timing issues? Whose palate must be placated? How should the meal be plated? Should any of the meal be served in courses or at once? What should be served to drink? Which wines pair better? Shall there be dessert, and if so, what? How should the table be set and the meal presented? What otherwise seems a banal task of serving food can be rife with uncertainty and tiresome indecision. Perhaps this is why many have a short list of favored meals.

Acute and chronic stress levels are reaching blight proportions. Not only does prolonged stress raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, increase the risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, it makes you one unpalatable mate. Researchers have even learned that chronic stressors can rewire the brain in ways that promote its presence. These sinister changes in the neural circuitry affect the regions of the brain associated with decisions and behavior. You tend to fall back on rote routine and eventually settle into bad habits. Executive decision-making skills are hampered.

Fortunately, stress induced changes to the brain are reversible, and pharmaceuticals are often not the answer. Solace can be found in the kitchen. Once embraced, cooking offers a change of pace and venue, soothing the angst and perturbations of the daily rut. Jangled nerves can be soothed. On a most basic level, it provides a creative outlet where raw, solitary ingredients are transformed into an amalgamation of scents, flavors, textures and hues. While stress numbs the senses, cooking activivates them. The cooking process has an almost measured field of action, a mission with a defined goal, and a finish with sensuous contentment.

Below is an embarassingly easy salad, soup, and sandwich trio to add to your decision tree. Relax, unwind, create and then savor. To narrow the matrices for the indecisive, the core ingredients remain fairly constant—fennel and fungi fervor with bright, fragrant tones of anise, sometimes citrus, and an underlying earthiness.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SALAD WTH CITRUS-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 C fine champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 C extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Parmigiano reggiano, thinly sliced into curls

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, orange zest, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream until it emulsifies. Set aside.

Cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb so as to remove the fingers. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a knife.

Slice the bulb very thinly into rings. Add mushroom slices and gently toss with a light coating of the champagne-orange vinaigrette. Sparsely finish with a few parmigiano reggiano curls.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SOUP

4 T unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and chopped
1 t fennel seeds, toasted and ground
8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed

4 C mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/2 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter until hot and foaming, but not browning. Add the fennel and toasted fennel seeds, then sauté over moderate until just softened, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushrooms, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, turn to high until it just reaches a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Pour into a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée in pulses until smooth.

Pour the puréed soup into a large heavy saucepan, add the cream, and gently reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking. Ladle into shallow soup bowls and strew with tarragon ribbons.

FENNEL, MUSHROOM & PROSCUITTO PANINI

1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and thinly sliced, almost shaved
4 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 oz proscuitto, very thinly sliced
4 oz taleggio or fontina cheese, sliced

Artisan bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill sparingly with fennel, mushrooms, proscuitto and top with some taleggio. The bread should be the star.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight(s) on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. It should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing cheese.

Pourboire: foods known to reduce stress include asparagus, avocado, berries, beef, cottage cheese, fish, milk, nuts, oranges, pasta, rice, whole grain breakfast cereals and breads, raw vegetables, cooked spinach, tea, and dark chocolate. Some foods are chocked with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B-6 and B-12 while others increase magnesium, folic acid, calcium and serotonin levels. These foods also counteract cortisol & epinephrine, the so-called “stress hormones” secreted by the adrenal glands.