Clowns & Chickpea Soup

January 20, 2012

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.
~Mark Twain

While on the folly of moral high grounders, just imagine that during one 24-hour spell: (1) a dropout governor and loser vice presidential candidate, who was woefully under scrutinized by her own party before “they” recklessly placing her on the ticket, ironically excoriated the country for electing the current president without properly vetting him; (2) in an embarrassing vote recount, a bigoted, right wing former senator was now declared the winner of a recent state caucus, reversing the previous results and defeating the party’s front running, perfectly coiffed mannequin candidate after all; (3) that same flip-flopping, scantily taxed, front running sycophant who has been warbling patriotic–even misinterpreting America The Beautiful–and touting good old fashioned homeland work values, has been surreptitiously shifting his funds to offshore tax havens; (4) a current governor with decidedly conservative, homophobic values has dropped out of the race and now endorsed another candidate, a former House Speaker who has repeatedly heralded the sanctity of established monogamous marriages; (5) while the second wife of this same pontificating Speaker gave a tell all interview where she revealed that this self-annointed high browed historian sought an “open marriage” with her all the while having a sordid affair with his now third wife; (6) then later that evening, the remaining pretenders suit and tied up to spew their pious demagogy onstage before raucous partisans at a national “debate.”

The stuff of statesmen and diplomats? Not even Twain or the esteemed dramatist Molière could have concocted such inane political satire. Makes me want to take a long shower, slip into some jammies, pop some popcorn, and tune into Fox “News” or CNN while humming And where are the clowns?…Send in the clowns.

Given yesterday’s lunacy and in honor of the ancient Roman orator, linguist and philosopher Cicero (from which ceci was derived), some velvety, soulful chickpea soup seemed in order. Often, solace can be found in legumes.

PASSATO DI CECI (TUSCAN CHICKPEA SOUP)

Extra virgin olive oil
1/4 lb pancetta, cut into 1/2″ lardons

1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Sea salt

1 lb (2 C) dried chickpeas, washed, then soaked in water overnight
2 qts chicken stock
4 sprigs fresh thyme, tied in twine
2 bay leaves
1 qt water

Extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs rosemary, stemmed with leaves finely chopped
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 1/2 C artisanal bread, crust on, cut into 1/2″ cubes

Extra virgin olive oil
Mint leaves, chopped

Lightly coat the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven with olive oil, add the pancetta and bring to medium heat. When the pancetta starts to become crispy, add the onion, celery, carrots, garlic, crushed red pepper and season lightly with salt. Cook the vegetables until they become aromatic and begin to soften, about 6-7 minutes. Do not brown.

Drain and discard the water from the soaked chickpeas, rinse them in a colander and add to the pot. Add the chicken stock, thyme, bay leaves and 1 quart of water. Bring the liquid just to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until the chickpeas are very soft and nearly falling apart, about 1 1/2-2 hours. Turn off the heat, season with salt and allow to rest for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, deeply coat a large skillet with olive oil, add garlic cloves, rosemary leaves, and crushed red pepper and bring to medium heat. Remove the garlic once it is golden and before it burns. Then add the cubed bread and cook until just crispy and golden. Season with salt and remove the croutons to a bowl for use later, reserving the garlic-rosemary oil.

Add the garlic-rosemary oil to the soup. Purée (in batches if necessary) the soup by pulsing in a food processor or blender. Correct the consistency, if necessary–if too thin, cook some more to reduce, or if too thick carefully add more stock. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls, drizzle very lightly with olive oil, then top with croutons and mint.

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The pen was put to rest for due cause. The delay since my last posting has been far from a case of writer’s cramp. Instead, my eldest, the bona fide chef of the family, was found to have a pernicious and rare lung carcinoid which necessitated a harrowing open surgery followed by a rather lengthy and agonizing hospital stay in LA. The tumor had been insidiously residing within him for several years before becoming symptomatic. As much as he tried to avoid it, the surgeon had to get medieval on his ass, leaving him with a shark bite sized incision emblazoned on his chest. Excruciating pain became a way of life for him. And now, recuperation is ongoing and long term. But, I have faith that with time his inertia will be restored, regained and will not wane.

While there is no need to belabor the details, suffice it to say the entire process has been an ordeal for all and a living nightmare for him. As parents, these somber, reflective times have been a tumult of chaotic ideas and sensations…the stuff that makes your fingernails and toenails ache.

Above all—and I mean above all—thank you dear friends and family for your benevolent, unflagging support.

The only silver lining in these dark skies was fortuitously tripping across a recently opened local LA trattoria (or perhaps osteria), Della Terra Restaurant. Affable and urbane, Della Terra also exudes that rustic but often elusive Tuscan simplicity. I already miss the preamble olives, oranges and flatbread, to make no mention of the scrumptious brick oven grilled pizza. Della Terra will no doubt soon make it on “must go” lists in sprawling tinseltown. Thank you Franco, Michael, Gerry, Renato (and the back of the house) for your gracious hospitality and eloquent eats during troubled times. To say your service was accommodating would be a gross understatement. Never once did I enter the door without a warm handshake and hearing—“How is your son?”

As you will be serving Sunday brunch in the near future, I humbly offer this radicchio with eggs & proscuitto fare as a thought and a means of thanks.

GRILLED RADICCHIO WITH EGGS & PROSCUITTO (RADICCHIO CON UOVA E PROSCUITTO)

3 heads radicchio, any imperfect outer leaves removed and quartered
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1/2 T fresh rosemary leaves, minced
1/2 T fresh thyme leaves, minced
Freshly ground black pepper

1 T unsalted butter
4 large eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 lb. (Parma or San Daniele), cut into thin julienne
1/4 lb. shelled walnuts, roughly chopped
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T balsamic vinegar

4 large eggs, hard boiled and finely chopped
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated

Whisk together olive oil, herbs and pepper.

Prepare barbeque grill to medium high heat or use grill pan heated to medium high on stove top. Brush radicchio quarters with herbed olive oil, then arrange on grill or grill pan. Cook on each side for approximately 2-3 minutes per side. You are looking to achieve slightly wilted edges. Once cooled to room temperature, roughly cut into strips.

In a large bowl, combine the radicchio, prosciutto, walnuts, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper, to taste, and toss well to coat.

Then, in a large heavy non stick pan, heat 1 tablespoon of butter over high heat until it foams and subsides. Crack 2 egg into the pan and cook, sunny side up, seasoning with salt and pepper and removing to a plate as they finish cooking. Repeat this process with the remaining 2 eggs and butter.

Divide the salad evenly among plates and top each serving with a sunny side up egg and a hard boiled, finely chopped egg and a light grating of parmigiano-reggiano.

Learning never exhausts the mind.
~Leonardo da Vinci

One of history’s enduring geniuses. He was a great creative mind of the Italian Renaissance, hugely influential as an artist but also immensely talented as an engineer, scientist and inventor. Leonardo da Vinci was born near the town of Vinci in Tuscany in 1452, the illegitimate son of a local lawyer.

He has been considered one of the world’s most renowned sculptors, painters and architects producing such masterpieces as the cryptic mural of The Last Supper and the eternally smirking, shifty eyed Mona Lisa.

Da Vinci pondered, wrote and sketched freely on such eclectic subjects as geology, anatomy (studied in order to more accurately portray the human form), flight, gravity and optics, often flitting from subject to another on a single page, and writing in left-handed mirror script. He embarked on inventing the underlying basics for the bicycle, airplane, helicopter, and parachute some 500 years ahead of their time. And this blurb is giving him short shrift…just cannot wait to look in the mirror tomorrow morning and reflect on the accomplishments of the rest of us plebs. Da Vinci died on May 2, 1519, at Château of Cloux, near Amboise, France, where he was residing at the invitation of King Francois I, an avid patron of the arts.

This week, a forensic art investigator claimed a fingerprint found on what was presumed to be a 19th century German painting of a young woman and convinced leading experts that it is actually an original portrait by da Vinci now worth up to $150 million.

The painting of the woman—now identified as La Bella Principessa and believed to have been created around 1496 by the legendary Renaissance master—was purportedly purchased by a Canadian art collector in 2007 for the now modest sum of $19,000. A nearly sadistic uptick in value.

The fingerprint, believed to be of da Vinci’s middle or index finger, was found in the upper right hand corner of the work and matched one to a print from his unfinished painting St. Jerome in the Wilderness now housed in the Vatican museums. A rather precious and almost metaphorical fingertip (or footprint in today’s vernacular—why the shift in digits, extremities?). This stunning art world discovery would represent the first new painting attributed to da Vinci in more than a century.

Calf’s liver is a delicacy often served in Tuscany, da Vinci’s birthplace. Ergo, these truncated ramblings about the master and his fingers.

SAUTEED CALF’S LIVER

4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1″ pieces
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 T extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 lbs calf’s liver, sliced 1/4″ thick
2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
8 fresh sage leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 C chicken stock
1 T honey
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T capers, drained and rinsed

Chopped tarragon, for garnish

In a large skillet, sauté bacon and onion in olive oil until bacon is crisp and onions are tender and just slightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Wipe out skillet and add butter and olive oil. Add garlic to pan over medium high heat and allow to cook some, but do not burn, then remove. While it heats, season liver with salt and pepper. Add sage and liver to pan, in batches if necessary, and sauté for about 2 minutes a side over medium high heat. The liver is done when it is golden on surface but still pink on inside, about 3 minutes per side. As pieces cook, transfer them to serving platter which is tented by foil to keep warm.

Stir in the stock, honey and vinegar to the skillet and reduce until thickened and can coat a spoon. Add the capers to the sauce to warm. Arrange the liver on plates, top or base with onions and bacon and then drizzle the sauce over the top.

Garnish with tarragon or another fresh herb of choice. Serve with tagliatelle, polenta or home made egg noodles.

Buon appetito, Marco!