Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Life: It's a Helluva Good Option

The Three Ages of Woman, 1905 by Gustav Klimt

“We're all fools," said Clemens, "all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly.” 

― Ray BradburyThe Illustrated Man

It is the last month of yet another decade on this planet in this incarnation for your humble food writer. A diplomat is a man who remembers a woman's birthday, but never her age. In three Wednesdays, my husband will toast to another happy anniversary of my 29th birthday. His words, not mine.  He thinking perhaps that I prefer to remain forever just one year shy of 30. I don't. I never have. Still, by any reckoning, I am now solidly in my middle-age, despite looking younger.  No amount of trendy clothing ill-advisedly purchased at Urban Outfitters or H&M can alter the ticks of my biological clock. (U.O. and H&M are inexpensive retail shops for the young and clueless that sell ready-to-wear garments with short hemlines and short-term expiration dates; I append for those of you in the Neiman Marcus crowd with quizzical expressions on your high-brows).

Who knows, maybe the Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and New Agers are right about the cosmic wheel? I may once have been a Babylonian princess, a Queen of Egypt, and Emperor of the Roman Empire, these were tough jobs but somebody had to do them. My ego would certainly lend credence to such a storied lineage. Of course if it is true, I've fallen a long way down the karmic ladder, baby.

Mark Twain once said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." He's right. I never face my birthdays with trepidation, but I guess now I find myself doing exactly that.

Part of it is the fact that various parts of my body have conspired to commit mutiny against me. It is amazing how many musculoskeletal injuries I've suffered this year. Years of professional dance, powerlifting and competitive aerobics have finally and mercilessly taken their toll.

It seems to be happening all at once.

What was once agile, strong and graceful is now by comparison stiff, weak and limping. Far from being able to perform a tour de force: going from a rapid succession of pique turns into soaring tour de jetes and dramatically ending with a long, languorous 180 degree arabesque penchee' as I once did not so very long ago, I can barely climb a staircase without my body groaning while it plays some kind of twisted Rubik's Cube-like game with my knee joints. It would be funny if it were not so maddeningly pathetic.

“The wisest are the most annoyed at the loss of time.” 
― Dante Alighieri

This may be the worst of it - the acknowledgment that a solid chunk of my life is now behind me, if the average age for human beings is to be taken into account, and, like too many people before me, I feel I've got little to show for it other than a few strands of the requisite grey hair, even fewer so-called "character" lines, and what will probably be an extra 1000 lbs. on my frame, if my knee doesn't improve soon.

Another sad reckoning!

Is this the totality of the human experience?
Racing blindly forward the first 40 years or so stoked with hubris (and then denial when you run low on hubris) until you crash into a wall of futility where you contemplate your navel until they dump your bones into an earthen pit; only to repeat the cycle over again like you're caught in some demented Maytag appliance?

Like Woody Allen's Mickey says in the movie, Hannah and Her Sisters:
"... And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said the life we've lived we're gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

It hardly seems worth the trouble, does it?

Well, if I'm only going to end up where I am now anyway, no sense in trying to end it all prematurely especially if Nietzsche's wrong about the details of eternal recurrence and the Hindu's are right. According to Hinduism, I'd definitely experience another karmic downturn in my cycle if I killed myself for selfish reasons
. I'd hate to come back as a Velveeta-eating, nasal-twanging Indiana Hoosier fan and all that such a lifestyle entails just for the sin of suicide. It would be a version of hell that even Dante would shudder to contemplate if he in all of his Renaissance wonder could have imagined such a scenario.

Like Woody Allen's Mickey finally did, I, too, h
ave had an epiphany that has dragged me out of the murky depths of self-pity and nihilism.

Mickey's came while he was feeling his most morose and, in an attempt to escape his despair, he wanders into a New York art-house revival theatre that was running a classic Marx Brothers movie. A few minutes of Groucho and co.'s zany antics was enough to make him realize that life - though incessantly trying and likely meaningless - was full o
f delightful distractions; so why not participate in the experience and enjoy it when and while you can.

My epiphany came while writing this post, wondering how I would ever disentangle myself enough from the torturous knot I'd wound this posting into to come up with an accompanying recipe that didn't feature arsenic as its main ingredien
t. Then I recalled Woody's movies and their optimistic existential wisdom. Knowing that it is my choice to believe either the worst or the best of myself and my situation, I choose the best... while acknowledging that Life experience as such certainly has its foibles and limitations but, hey, it's all we got and as the saying goes: Quis non iuguolo vos plantos vos validus (what doesn't kill us makes us stronger). No one has yet died from a gimpy knee, so I'm sitting pretty. It's all a matter of perspective.

I like Krishnamurti's exploration into the subject of life and aging and keeping a fresh mind:

"I think constant endeavor to be something, to become something, is the real cause of the destructiveness and the aging of the mind. Look how quickly we are aging, not only the people who are over sixty, but also the young people. How old they are already, mentally! Very few sustain or maintain the quality of a mind that is young. I mean by young not the mind that merely wants to enjoy itself, to have a good time, but the mind that is uncontaminated, that is not scratched, warped, twisted by the accidents and incidents of life, a mind that is not worn out by struggle, by grief, by constant strivings. Surely it is necessary to have a young mind because the old mind is so full of the scars of memories that it cannot live, it cannot be earnest; it is a dead mind, a decided mind. A mind that has decided and lives according to its decisions is dead. But a young mind is always deciding anew, and a fresh mind does not burden itself with innumerable memories. A mind that carries no shadow of suffering, though it may pass through the valley of sorrow, remains unscratched.
I do not think such a young mind is to be acquired. It is not a thing that you can purchase through endeavor, through sacrifice. There is no coin to it and it is not a marketable thing, but if you see the importance of it, the necessity of it, if you see the truth of it, then something else takes place." J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life 

In other words, just be present in the moment. React directly to the world around you, not through the hazy lens of your habits and memories. Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, focus the mind on the now. Life is so simple, it is we who insist on complicating it. 

Today I offer my culinary metaphor for life: 

Shrimp Fra Diavolo, a simple, hellish but delectable dish  - just like the human experience.

The man who inspired the dish was a late 18th century Neopolitan Jesse James type who liked to disguise himself on occasion as a monk when embarking on his mercenary missions (hence the "fra" part of his nickname Fra Diavolo or Brother Devil; you can guess where the "diavolo" part drew its inspiration). As to why a hot red toma
to sauce with shrimp was named after him is anybody's guess as there hasn't been any substantive historical evidence that this brigand (as such outlaws were quaintly called back then) nee' Michele Pezza ever ate the dish.

My best guess is that this infamous figure in Italian history while acting as a mercenary for the king of Sicily was so brutal that when he and hi
s buddies went on their rampages they left trails of red hot blood in their wake (appetizing, huh?) and in some kind of morbid commemoration of this man's dubious achievements the dish was born. Oh well, leave it to the Italians to derive gustatory inspiration from murder and still make it appealing.

The shrimp part of the story may be because Mik
ey was short in stature if not in savagery, or just because shrimp (as well as other forms of sea life) were cheap and bountiful in the south of Italy. Whatever the origin, it is a simple and satisfying dish to make at home. 

Get ready to spice up your life.....

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

You can amp up or tone down the heat by adjusting the amount of red chili flakes and garlic. You can also add another dimension to the dish by using fresh red chilis in the fresh chili pepper section of your produce market. Try to use the largest freshest prawns you can buy (16 to the pound sized shrimps work best).

I used a squid ink-infused pasta. I love the drama and contrast of the black against the red of the sauce and the white of the shrimp. The squid ink also gives the pasta a bit of a briny sea kiss. I prefer Fettuccine for this dish because the wider thicker noodles stand up to the heartiness of the sauce well.  You can, of course, use any type of pasta you like, or none at all. This would make a lovely stew served only with oven-warmed baguette lightly brushed with extra virgin olive oil.

For the vegetarians in the house: chunks of diced eggplant and fresh or smoked mozzarella make a great substitute for the shrimp. Just make sure you use a more substantial pasta shape like penne, ziti or farfalle if you go the veggie route. Linguini or fettuccine won't stand up to the veggies as well. Also add the eggplant after the onion & garlic to saute. Don't poach it. Add the mozzarella at the end when you are tossing the pasta with sauce.

A spicy California zinfandel or Italian barbera works great with this meal; as would any syrah-based wine like a southern French Rhone. Don't use your Turleys, your best Guigals or Gajas. Save those for drinking either on their own after dinner or with a roasted beast feast.

  • 1 lb. of fettuccine 
  • 1-1/2 lbs of large shrimp (size 16 to the lb.), deveined & shelled
  • 28 oz. of crushed San Marzano tomatoes or a box of Pomi 
  • 1 Tablespoon of tomato paste
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced with sea salt until paste forms
  • 1 small onion, chopped into small dice
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 handful of fresh parsley, leaves only coarsely chopped
  • 1 large lemon, rolled vigorously either on the countertop or between your hands
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (clean tasting & not too oaky)
  • 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt & fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup pitted nicoise or black olives, sliced in half lengthwise (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon of sriracha hot chili sauce (optional)
  • freshly grated pecorino or parmagiano-reggiano, to taste (optional)


Fill a large pasta or stock pot 3/4 of the way up with cold water. Set it on a large burner over high heat to boil.

In a mixing bowl large enough to accommodate the shrimp, place one teaspoon of the sriracha (hot chili) sauce in the bowl and mix in one tablespoon of the extra-virgin olive oil and 5 grinds (or 1/2 teaspoon) of fresh ground pepper. Do not add salt as the hot sauce contains sodium and additional salt would only toughen the shrimp. Add shrimp to bowl & coat them completely with the marinade. (There should not appear to be much marinade.) Set aside.

  1. Meantime, heat a 14" saute pan (or a dutch oven if you don't have a 14" pan) over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, lower heat to medium and add the remainder of the olive oil, allowing the oil to heat up for 30 seconds or so.
  2. Add onions, a pinch of sea salt & a few grinds of black pepper (or no more than 1/8 teaspoon each). Saute until onions are soft and translucent.
  3. Add garlic paste, stirring in for 30 seconds or until fragrant.
  4. Add oregano, stir until you can smell the oregano.
  5. Add tomato paste, stir; cook until tomato paste loses its raw color and darkens slightly. Add olives, stirring them into the sauce.
  6. Pour in white wine, raising the heat slightly to medium-high and deglazing the pan by scraping any bits of sauce that have stuck to it. When white wine has almost evaporated, add the crushed tomatoes. Stir well to fully incorporate then add half of the parsley. Lower the heat to low setting. Let cook for 15 minutes. Now cook the pasta.

While sauce is cooking, add salt to boiling water. Stir; add pasta. Be sure to use the lowest time recommended by the pasta manufacturers instructions. Pasta may be ready before the sauce. If it is, have a colander over a large pasta bowl ready; gently lift the pasta out of the pot with metal tongs or pasta fork and place it all into the colander, allowing the excess water to drain into the large bowl. Then carefully lift pasta-filled colander; place it over the pasta pot still filled with water making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the colander, then add a tablespoon of butter (don't use oil) and a few tablespoons of grated pecorino, tossing the pasta lightly with butter (or olive oil) and cheese. Then lightly cover colander with aluminum foil keeping the water in the pot on a very low simmer until sauce is complete.

When sauce has thickened slightly, cut softened lemon (that you have vigorously rolled on the counter) in half; add juice to the sauce, using your fingers to strain any pips and discard the remains.
Stir in the lemon juice; now add the marinated shrimp to the sauce in one single layer. Try not to allow the shrimp to touch each other in the pan.
Cover pan with a large lid or foil and allow shrimp to poach undisturbed for 3 minutes or 4 minutes (if size 16, 2-3 minutes if smaller). Test shrimp for doneness. They should be just opaque with pink edges. Do not overcook. When shrimp are cooked remove them from pan, set aside with a little sauce in a dish to keep warm.

Have pasta in colander handy.
Now, turn the heat up for the sauce, adding the remaining parsley; 1 ladle full of pasta water, stirring well to incorporate. When sauce looks smooth, turn off the heat, add the grated cheese if using, stirring well, now carefully combine the pasta with the sauce, using tongs and a large spoon and adding a little additional pasta water or drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil if pasta appears too dry. Place pasta in warm individual plates or large pasta bowl. Garnish with shrimp and a drizzling of the reserved sauce.

This recipe will serve 4-6 optimistic existentialists.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Eat Drink Man Woman: On Food & Sex (with a side of risotto)

"Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke."  ~Margo Channing, All About Eve

It started with Eve and the apple. Forbidden fruit, the wide-eyed promise of a naked truth eternal. A smile, a bite, the taste of seduction is always sweet. 

The secret to pleasure lies not only in the carnal, but in the ephemeral. Think Proust and his episode with a few crumbs of madeline as they touched his palate, "a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? "

He is transported instantaneously through the power of taste to a time and place that his conscious self had forgotten. That place of abandon where the fleeting moment lives suspended waiting only to be revived with the tip of a tongue, a flare of the nostril, a firing off of ganglionic overdrive...

My relationship with food has always been intimate, and creating a meal for someone, especially a lover, floods me with a sensation of sinuous excess, as the possibilities abound. I am steeped in a luxuriant world of aromatics, spices and unguents. Being tactile, I manhandle my food. Not for me the salad tong, or the garlic mincer. I run my fingers through every leaf I toss, feeling the weight of it to determine when it is adequately saturated with a dressing. I chop everything by hand. Meat is seasoned only after I have rubbed my herbs & spices in, kneading its fibers, willing it to absorb my flavorings. I would never insert a cold metal thermometer into a fine piece of beast to check for doneness, I use my olfactory senses and my fingers; sniffing it, prodding it, touching it-  experience teaches me when a particular cut and type of meat is ready for consumption. Just as in lovemaking, there is no substitute for hands-on knowledge. You either have it, or you don't.

My husband was aghast when I told him I was going to write about food and sex. He pictured me describing tawdry scenes of my former sexual exploits: the champagne bath that preceded the first time I climaxed, the honey-coating of my skin, the unique and varied ways one can use a cornucopia of nature's bounty to enhance and broaden one's culinary horizons in bacchanalian wonder.

There's no need for such graphic exploitation of food. Eating itself becomes a temple of the sensual. The sumptuous made sublime. Let me explain to you as I did to him.

 For many people, eating sensuously is all about texture:

Silken, unctuous foods, foods anointed with a holy oil that feel like ritual sacraments as they glide over your tongue, coating your palate with their essence. Creamy risottos, viscous honeys, delicacies that melt or glide, caramel, custard. Some of these foods take on anthropomorphic qualities that imbue them with eroticism. Consider MFK Fisher's oyster. Or the egg scene from  Jûzô Itami's, Tampopo, a favorite of mine and my husband's. A fetishist's dream...

Sigmund Freud explains that fetishism is based on the castration of the woman phallus. No "male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals". For Freud, the "fetish is a penis-substitute" to be precise for the "woman's (mother's) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego". The boy refuses to accept the fact that a woman has no penis: "for if a woman can be castrated then his own penis is in danger; and against that there rebels part of his narcissism which Nature has providentially attached to this particular organ". The fetish "remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it" The organs or objects selected as a substitute for the penis do not always act as a symbol thereof. When the "fetish comes to life, so to speak, some process has been suddenly interrupted . . . interest has been held up at a certain point – what is possibly the last impression before the uncanny traumatic one is preserved as a fetish"

Itami takes it one step further and combines the phallus with the egg … literally. The sustained exchange of a perfectly formed egg yolk, between two lovers' mouths, back and forth, back and forth, sliding from mouth to mouth, both moaning with the heightened pleasure of a most delicate penetration into each other's oral cavities, the sexual tension heightened by the need to restrain their excitement so as to prolong it until the climatic breaking of the egg yolk (which then runs from the woman’s mouth and down her chin) - a sublime moment. 

For others, it is visual... 

When someone gazes at an object we say that he devours it with his eyes, "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active / male and passive / female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to - be - looked - at - ness.” (Mulvey in Evans & Hall 1973 p 383). Consider the suggestiveness  of the lollipop-licking Lolita, the slow peeling and consumption of a banana, the way one laps at an ice cream cone. Contrast that with your average fast food commercial and the sight of someone chomping on a Big Mac or gorging themselves on a slice of pizza, giving the diner all the glamour of a jungle beast tucking into an antelope. Licking, on the other hand, is enticing to watch, almost ethereal by comparison - like an angel of Eros enjoying her daily dose of ambrosia.

How about juicy, self-contained foods that use your fingers, preferably while making contact with your lips, especially those capable of being eaten in one or two bites? Think of soft, pouty lips wrapping themselves around a fresh strawberry, a red cherry, the ripest fig, or piece of ahi nigiri. The light tooth-grazing consumption of the tender leaves of steamed artichokes also falls into this category of food come-ons.

Many cultures tend to reckon shape with sexual aphrodisiacs. Take the obvious likeness of avocados, apples, bananas, eggs, asparagus spears, ginseng, zucchini, oysters, mangoes or even the more far-flung rhinoceros horn to their sexually reproductive anatomical counterparts and you can come up with an interesting, if somewhat eclectic menu.

Some foods, over time, have been endowed with magical, potent sexual powers for their ability to excite rather than their physical characteristics. My four favorites: chocolate, champagne, caviar and chilis fall into this category.

Dark chocolate with its LDL lowering stearic acid, mood-elevating theobromine, "love chemical" inducing phenylethylamine, pleasure enhancing serotonin and energy boosting caffeine was considered not only an aphrodisiac but also quite the health elixir by the Aztecs and the Mayans and was revered as a food of the gods; 2000 years before more recently undergoing its latest health food status. 

The hot spice of chili peppers with its tear inducing capsciacin mimics the feelings of arousal by elevating the blood pressure & body temperature leaving you flushed, moist & panting.

Champagne has always been the wine of love & celebration with bubbles that tickle your tongue as well as your fancy. The alcohol in it is a powerful relaxant, allowing you to shed your inhibitions (if not your clothing).

The goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born from the sea, so all of the sea's creatures were said to be endowed with her aphrodisiac powers. It doesn't hurt that most seafood contain prodigious quantities of the mineral zinc which is known to be an effective nutrient for the erotically-challenged. Caviar is sturgeon roe. The many eggs of caviar also represent fertility; procreation and the propagation of the species, of course, has always been the most powerful catalyst for the sex act. Just ask Darwin. Money is a pretty good conductor of sexual electricity, too, and caviar costs lots of it which would likely add to its romantic allure.

Of course, too much of anything, champagne and caviar included, can douse the most ardent fire, so I advocate a little discretion in all things edible. While moderation may not seem to fan the flames of molten passion, it's always good to be a little hungry for something more....

Asparagus, Artichoke and Shiitake Risotto

I have chosen this dish as an illustration of a sensuous food for several reasons. There is just something so remarkably satisfying and sensual about the creamy rice texture once it has lapped up all that savory stock and the Parmigian-Reggiano has been delicately melted and laced throughout. The earthy flavors of the mushrooms, asparagus, and artichoke all meld together beautifully. The individual ingredients themselves are foods with sexual and/or romantic symbolism. The making of risotto, itself, is a rather languid affair, it is not a dish you can just slam, bam, thank you ma'am... Risotto requires your true devotion, unwavering commitment and the firm grip of patience. It’s a good 25-30 minute process that needs a dedicated and loyal hand to lovingly stir in the savory stock one cup at a time while it’s slowly absorbed into the rice. Of course, you can certainly invite your lover into the kitchen with you as you find yourself bent over that hot stove. Give him (or her) a glass of sauvignon blanc and carte blanche. 

The word asparagus comes from the Greek and it refers to any young, tender shoot that can be eaten. Asparagus was prized by the ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago. It was considered to be a cleansing and healing herb and used it for many medicinal purposes. The Romans in their turn also prized asparagus and cultivated it (the Greeks wildcrafted it) and spread it throughout Europe on their conquests. Emperor Augustus coined the term ''“velocius quam asparagi conquatur”'' which means to do something quicker than you can cook asparagus. Similar to our phrase “two shakes of a lambs tail”. So much did the Romans prize asparagus, that in the first century, runners took asparagus from the Tiber River valley to the Alps so that it could be frozen and thus preserved for the Feast of Epicurus.

King Louis XIV had asparagus grown in his greenhouses so that he could enjoy it year round, he dubbed asparagus the King of Vegetables. It was also popular in England and other parts of Europe and colonists brought it to America where Native Americans used it for medicine.

But most interestingly (and pertinent to this essay) asparagus was considered a phallic symbol banned from girls schools in the 19th century, but Victorian women were taught to detect the scent of this aphrodisiac on their husbands urine- a sure sign that he was behaving improperly!

Artichoke's Latin name - Cynara - comes from a mythological tale about a beautiful young maiden named Cynara, with whom the Greek god Zeus fell hopelessly in love. Unable to persuade Cynara to leave her mother and her earthly home to become a goddess, Zeus became so enraged that he transformed her into an artichoke, forever capturing her tender heart at the center of a protective crown of thorny leaves.
The Italians get the credit for developing the fine varieties of artichoke - carciofo in their language - that captured the courts of Renaissance Europe. They still have the largest repertoire of artichoke dishes. So including it in this risotto was only natural.
The rice itself is a symbol of fertility, as well as prosperity. Historically, in certain primitive tribal cultures, the mere act of supping on rice together bound a couple in matrimony, as eating this local food together implied their living together. In other cultures, the symbolic eating of rice together preceded a shower of rice over the married couple.
The shiitake mushrooms have umami.  Literally translated, the Japanese word umami means “delicious taste” or “pleasant savory taste” and was coined by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he discovered that monosodium glutamate, naturally present in some foods, reacts synergistically with some ribonucleotides, including Umami - how humans experience taste inosinate and guanylate. That sounds rather stale and scientific, but what it basically means is that chemicals in some foods interact in a special way to really impress your taste buds.

Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste difficult to describe. If a flavor had to be assigned to the term umami, it would be meaty and brothy with a tongue-coating savoriness that causes salivation... Enough said. 

The proper pan makes all the difference. I am partial to Le Creuset 5 quart braiser. It is made from cast iron, enamel-coated, shallow-edged and wide which allows for even cooking as well as the relative rapid absorption of the liquid. However any heavy-gauged 4-5 sauce pot or Dutch oven will do. 

  • 5 cups chicken broth (40 fl ounces)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 pound thin to medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, leaving tips 1 1/2 inches long
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 3/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
  • 2 large fresh artichoke hearts, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, prepared*
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (preferably the one you are drinking)
  • 2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup, though I used half)

Bring broth and water to a boil in pot. Add asparagus and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 2 to 4 minutes (depending on the thickness of the stalks). Transfer asparagus with a slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then drain and pat dry. Keep broth at a bare simmer, covered.

Heat oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a heavy saucepan over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then saute mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a bowl. Set aside.

Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 minute.

Ladle in 1 cup simmering broth and cook at a strong simmer, stirring, until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Continue simmering and adding broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently and letting each addition be absorbed before adding next, until rice is just tender and looks creamy, 18 to 20 minutes. (Save leftover broth for thinning.)

Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup cheese, remaining tablespoon butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir in asparagus, artichokes and mushrooms, then cover pan and let stand 1 minute. If desired, thin risotto with some of remaining broth. Serve immediately with remaining cheese on the side.

* Don't use canned hearts. Not for the risotto. They will be too acidic & disintegrate into the rice. My favorite artichoke heart preparation is to remove all the outer leaves, the hairy choke and stem of a whole artichoke, leaving just the heart. Cut the heart into 1/4 inch slices and toss it immediately in a bowl filled with water acidulated with the juice of one lemon. Make sure each and every edge, angle and side of the hearts gets coated in lemon juice, or they will brown very quickly. In a small pot, boil water with a good glug or two of white wine, a splash of white vinegar, a smashed garlic clove and/or a bay leaf. Drop in the artichoke hearts with all of their lemon juice, and simmer them for about 10 minutes, or longer if needed for them to become tender. Drain and set them aside.

This recipe will feed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (if you're into that sort of thing) each a main-course serving.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Soul Soothing Soup

When the world seems headed to hell in a hand-basket and life feels like some hopeless, crazy exercise in futility, we all need to turn to someone or something that we can depend on to make us feel safe and secure ( a laughable though laudable desire, life being the crapshoot that it is).

For some, it is religion or belief in a god who ultimately rewards the good and punishes the evil that gives them solace.

For others, it is the news networks and broadcasts whose "round the clock", "up to the minute" presence at the latest tragedy assures them that life in our society presses onward, forward despite the horrific and catastrophic nature of the networks' latest exploitation -- oops, I mean, what has befallen. Yes, somehow, with Oprah, Brian Williams, and Matt Lauer there endlessly probing every victim's and perpetrator's family & friends; and, repeatedly plying every crackpot psychiatrist, theorist, "expert panelist", lawyer, & politician they can use to fill the airwaves with inane often unanswerable questions for days on end, some people feel comforted.

Many others, seek the warmth and wordless reassurance of their nearest's arms whether that person be a spouse, parent or sibling. There is always something about the seeming sanctity and inviolability of one's home and family that offers asylum from an increasingly chaotic world.

I tend to fall more inline with the latter group's thinking. Hearth and home are the ultimate sanctuary for me during restless times, especially the hearth, or the modern day hearth--- the kitchen.

There is something about the preparation of a labor- intensive but simple meal that is therapeutic and relaxing. It could just be a purely visceral reflexive response to the familiar scents and repetitive nature of cooking: the sense-memories of happier times stirred up: memories of christmas in grandma's house, the chicken soup mom gave you to make you feel better, the fragrance worn by your first love.

It is said by those who make a study of neurotransmissions that the sense of smell activates more areas in the brain than any other of our senses. The memory centers of the cerebral cortex are instantaneously activated when we smell, well before other centers of the brain.

Some experts theorize that this occurs as an evolutionary autonomic defense mechanism, most likely to prevent us from ingesting poisonous substances by stirring our memories of other "bad" smells that we have experienced allowing us to compare and associate them as things to be avoided.

Whatever the reason the brain is the ultimate database & smell is the most efficient way to trigger it.

So on this and every other bad news day, let's turn the olfactory systems on, get our juices flowing, fill our homes with delicious aromas and remember happier days with a little dose of comfort from the people who live life so well: the Italians.

Italy has none of the arrogance and all of the zest of France. It is a cuisine that could make you devoutly religious because it is so pure and so divine that it could only have come from a higher being. Italian cuisine is the ultimate comfort food.

Each region (and there are many) with its own specialty of culinary artistry. I submit my own humble offering inspired by zuppa di minestre ; something warm and familiar to soothe the soul. Time has erased the class distinctions between the two categories of Italian soupszuppa and minestra , but their respective names and characteristics reflect their markedly contrasting pedigrees. Zuppa refers to a broth which, with a few exceptions, has slices of bread in it but never rice or pasta. The Italian word - along with the French soupe , Portuguese and Spanish sopa and German suppe - derives from the Gothic suppa , meaning "soaked bread". 
That slice of 
bread indicates the less exalted origins of this soup. In medieval times, the plates on the tables of the nobility took the form of trenchers of sliced bread. These "plates", which ended up saturated with the juices of meats and other foods placed on them, were subsequently cooked by the servants, in water or stock, for their own meal. Given its beginnings essentially as cooked dishwater, zuppa was obviously never seen on the tables of the rich. It was a dish eaten by their servants.

precedes zuppa by a few centuries. A derivation of the Latin ministrare , meaning "to administer", the word reflects the fact that minestra was served out from a central bowl or pot by the head of the household. Minestra was traditionally for the poor and the sole course of the meal.
 The word minestrone in modern times now connotes a hearty vegetable soup that is often a one-pot meal.  We can still think of it as "that which is served or administered," because serve it does.

It never lets me down.


The pancetta can easily be replaced with bacon, italian sausage, prosciutto, ham or eliminated altogether if you're vegetarian-inclined. Same goes for the swiss chard: you can substitute any hearty green leafy vegetable. If you decide to use spinach or other tender green use it toward the end or it may disintegrate into the soup which, or course, wouldn't hurt the soup anyway. Also, use any small-shaped pasta if you don't have orecchiette ( my husband likes penne) or break larger pasta into pieces. I think by now I have made it clear: this recipe is like all recipes that don't involve pastry making (which is like chemistry, an exact science): it is just a guideline. You can freely substitute anything you don't like; consider it a clean-out the fridge soup!!!  While it may subtly change the texture or flavor of my soup, it will be the perfect soup for you!!! Isn't that a comforting thought?

Minestrone w/ Pancetta and Orecchiette

  • 1 slice of 1" thick pancetta ( about 4 ounces), cut into large dice
  • 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 leeks, well rinsed & chopped, white part only
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed & minced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 red potatoes, cut into small dice
  • 1 bunch of swiss chard, discard tough ends & roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1 28 oz. can of crushed italian- style tomatoes (preferably from San Marzano in Italy)
  • 8 cups of low-sodium chicken stock
  • 1 ounce of dried porcini mushrooms (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 can fagioli bianchi di spagna (butter beans) or cannellini beans, drained
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon herbes de provence
  • handful of fresh italian parsley, chopped
  • sea salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • handful of fresh basil, in chiffonade
  • the rind of 1 wedge of parmigiano-reggiano
  • 4 oz. dry orecchiette, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano


Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Place dried porcinis in a small bowl, cover with the hot water & place kitchen towel over bowl to assist steeping. Set aside for 15 minutes.

Meantime, heat a large stockpot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. When hot, add pancetta & saute until brown (about 3 minutes) & the fat is rendered from the meat.

Next add half the olive oil to the pan, give a quick stir then add the next five vegetables ( leeks, onions, carrots, celery, & garlic) to the pan to form your "sofrito". Add a pinch of salt & a couple of grinds of black pepper & "sweat" the sofrito mixture stirring occasionally until vegetables are almost translucent (about 5 minutes).

When ready, stir oregano, herbes de provence, red pepper flakes & bay leaf into mixture & saute until the dried herbs release their volatile oils and are fragrant. Then add tomato paste, stirring well to incorporate it into the mixture. Add potatoes. Let mixture cook together for 2 minutes more.

While sauce cooks, carefully remove porcinis from bowl, giving them a quick brush with wet towel to remove any dirt. Chop porcinis & add to sauce, stirring briefly. Reserve steeping liquid.

Add wine to pot. Stir well, scraping any brown bits that may have stuck to bottom of pot (deglaze the pan). When wine has boiled down, add swiss chard & stir well. Then add beans, gently folding them in.

Next, completely cover small strainer with a paper towel; take reserved porcini liquid and pour liquid through strainer directly into soup. Stir mixture.

Add tomatoes & half the parsley. Stirring in & tasting. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Add chicken stock & parmagiano rind. Stir, bring to a simmer, lower heat to lowest setting & let cook 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add pasta, stir it in, & let cook over low heat 30 minutes more; stirring occasionally.

Heat soup bowls in microwave or oven. Add remaining parsley & basil to the pot.

Serve soup topping each bowl with drizzle of olive oil & tablespoon of grated parmigiano-reggiano.
A simple green salad and a side of warm grilled italian bread brushed with olive oil rounds out the meal nicely.
This is a dish that improves with age. So store leftovers in the refrigerator and enjoy another time. Buon Appetito!!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Dinner of the Damned: How NOT To Cook Veal Scallopini For Friends

Well, the first week of August had come and gone. San Francisco was in its best pea soup mode. Carl Sandburg may have referred to fog as something that 'comes on little cat feet...looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on..." but the man was probably high on hooch. Make no mistake. August is damp and depressing. However two things of note occurred that week:  Barry Bonds had broken the all-time home-run record with his 756th homer at AT&T Park (or whatever they're calling it these days: the name is constantly being sold to the highest bidder) and my husband's best friend made his quarterly visit to our fair city.

I seem to be writing that final phrase of the last paragraph just in passing; but, in fact, these visits by my husband's close longtime friend and college buddy had become the bane of my existence.

It isn't just because the man is a loud, contrarian, selfish, insufferable lout who believes he is omniscient. No, his childish hubris and demands for attention (that make the lives of all who have the misfortune to encounter him difficult to bear) might be tolerable for the short duration of his visits if it were not for his insistence every time he stays with us that we cancel at the last minute whatever reservations for a four-star restaurant I have painstakingly made so that he may cook for us what he considers his signature dish, Veal Scallopini.

"Now, now, Lori", those of you who have not encountered this man might say, "the poor guy is only trying to show you his appreciation for your generous hospitality. Surely you can always reschedule your reservation to that Michelin star restaurant for another time; besides, how bad can a little sauteed veal be?".

I pray that you will never be in a position to answer that question.

First it starts with my husband's dear friend's announcement that dinner at the previous night's restaurant was unsatisfactory because:

a) it made him physically ill


b) was too "fancy", too "trendy", too "stodgy"


c) the wait staff was too attentive or inattentive; intimidating or ingratiating; attractive or unattractive

or maybe this time it's....

d) noise level was too high ("I can't hear myself think!")


e) noise level too low ("Are we in a funeral parlor?")

You get the picture? No matter what the circumstance there is always something so horribly wrong that it has made even the thought of attending a repeat performance at another one of our San Francisco culinary theaters impossible for him.

Knowing very well what is coming next, my astute and loving husband tries, Deion Sanders-like, to head his friend off at the pass: "How about pizza tonight?", suggests my hubby blithely to his pal, "You like Little Star's deep dish and we can drink a magnum of that '85 Gaja you love."

But to no avail.

The old college buddy nimbly sidesteps that option with a wrinkle of the nose and a shake of the head lamenting the sad state of hospitality in the 21st century and then it comes... like a tidal wave smashing a lifeboat....the dreaded, "How about if I make dinner for you guys tonight?"

The silence that follows this seemingly innocuous offer is deafening.

My husband quickly gazes at our family room's limestone floor with a sudden penchant for discovering every fossilized line on its surface. My attention is equally riveted by iTune's long list of ambient radio stations on our iMac.

But we are only delaying the inevitable.

His friend trudges up the backstairs to the guest suite to get ready for the day's activities, incoherently muttering under his breath while taking our silence as a sign of a definite if reluctant assent; and my husband & I sit together quietly like two aristocrats on the tumbril during the French Revolution stoically waiting for our turn at the guillotine.

I, in my infinite idiocy,  suggest (as I always do) that his friend is our guest and should be humored and my husband, after a sigh of resignation (as he always does), agrees.

And so the long day begins.... after an exhausting afternoon engaged in things The Friend claims he wanted to do to please us but somehow lets on that he really didn't fully enjoy, comes the prologue to the epic: Shopping For The Dinner Of The Damned.

Shopping for dinner is something, as a rule, that I look forward to with an eager anticipation. Browsing through the glistening meats beautifully arranged on their trays, the interaction with the always helpful butchers who will happily hand-cut anything and everything to your specifications at Bryans, my favorite purveyors of meat & seafood in San Francisco; the gathering of the freshest seasonal produce, all of which are laid out in colorful array; perusing the aisles of gourmet goodies to see what's new and enticing. It's life lived in a Caravaggio painting until the experience culminates on the checkout line which is efficiently run. The queues never too long, affording me a little banter with the friendly cashiers who are always curious about what I'm going to make that night. Recipe tips and other pleasantries exchanged in equal measure.

All of it thoroughly enjoyable unless..... you are shopping with someone who argues that the veal cutlets laid out by the butcher are not "scallopini"" because they are not clearly labeled as such.

Of course, the veal cutlets as presented by the butcher were the cut of meat traditionally used for the dish and the cut of the meat itself is not technically called scallopini. It is not until the filets are floured, fried and sauced that anyone refers to the veal as scallopini. It is the name of a dish, not a particular cut of meat.

Unfortunately, this was not evident to The Friend who proceeded to ask another butcher in the shop for "Veal Scallopini" and was once again presented with the same thin boneless cutlets; after which I left the shop to avoid the next dramatic scene & headed next door to Peets under the pretense of buying coffee.

After my brief respite, I returned to the market and silently witnessed similar debacles with tomatoes ("I don't understand how to pick these heirloom things"), light olive oil ("What no Bertolli?" or "I thought light olive oil meant less calories?") and other items on his list of ingredients that supermarkets in Maryland carry which we here in the processed food impoverished San Francisco Bay area apparently lack.

As an aside, for the curious few (& I know you are in the minority), the "light" in light olive oil doesn't refer to the oil's caloric content; it means refined filtered olive oil that is lighter tasting with a higher flash point than virgin or extra-virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil is more robust in flavor than refined olive oil and should never be used for high temperature cooking.

Now comes the real thrust of the evening's festivities: The Preparation For The Dinner Of The Damned.

Here is where I am told in an imperious manner that my assistance is not required but I still:

a) am requested to make the appetizer plate

b) am asked where the utensils are one item at a time, time and again (although I, with a foresight afforded to me by previous experiences with this iron chef wannabe, have already placed them all within easy view & reach; along with all the ingredients for the dish)

c) am criticized for not having a saute pan larger than 14" in diameter, a lemon juicer & other culinary infractions

d) am asked again for ingredients & utensils that are right in front of him

All of this would be exasperating enough even with the promise of a gourmet feast prepared with culinary flourish by Thomas Keller of Per Se and French Laundry fame.

However, when a dinner menu consists of: unseasoned, floured $19.99/lb veal which is first fried & then boiled until it's texture resembles coarse-grained shoe leather in a sauce of unseasoned, unreduced white wine, lemon juice, sliced raw mushrooms and capers (without a hint of herbs, aromatics or butter) served with a side of Rice-a-Roni pilaf and mushy asparagus spears, you really don't know whether to laugh or cry.

No wonder both of his daughters are vegetarians. I, too, would choose a frozen black bean burrito over that mess any day.

After preparing The Dinner Of The Damned comes the epilogue:

the coerced compliments, the difficult prolonged mastication, the hard swallows followed by large gulps of a beautiful wine that is really meant to be sipped and savored not sloshed around like a dose of Listerine vainly hoping to rid your palate of an unsavory veal's flavor.

The worst part is the anticipation of being forced to partake of this culinary farce in another 3 months. Oh Death, where is thy sting?

Maybe, San Francisco will outlaw the selling of veal by then.
Why not?  California's ban on foie gras took effect this past year.
Could a veal ban be far in the offing? Let's hope so for my sake!

Fortunately, the last time we had a jolly old visit from The Friend, I was able to bow out for most of his visit by claiming I had contracted a combination of bubonic plague and amoebic dysentery which would make my appearance for dinner, at best, a highly speculative prospect, but I sweetly assured him I'd play it by ear.

I also diplomatically added I thought he and my hubby would enjoy more "boy time" together which, thankfully, he readily agreed to, and other than one dinner at Farallon, a seafood restaurant in town, where I had prodigious amounts of the juice of a few crushed rotted grapes to help ease the pain in my posterior this "Friend" gave me, I was home-free! *insert standing ovation*

The one good thing (and honestly, there are not many) about living in a tiny apartment vs. the former 10,000 sf home where we hosted this culinary Death March to Bataan is that NOBODY will stay with you unless they really can't afford the price of a hotel room. So, thank Whomever, Mr. Insufferable Lout found more luxurious accommodations than the 6 ft rental couch in our living room.

I was spared playing hostess and being subjected to the grueling challenge of dodging all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune in the guise of a 6' 4" middle-aged windbag was going to shoot my way as he slept on my Frette linens and ate my Himalayan red salt, the graceless galout!

Well, with the hope that this recipe will somehow through the magic of the information superhighway reach its intended recipient, I submit for your perusal a quick, simple, foolproof chicken scallopini recipe bound to please your guests as long as your guests don't insist on staging some kind of gourmet coup against you as mine did to me.

Chicken Milanese a la Piccata (with Lemon Caper Sauce)


Traditionally, Piccata sauces are served with veal that has been lightly floured & sauteed not breaded (a la Milanese). I choose breaded chicken breast over dredged veal because both the Parmesan-flavored breadcrumb coating & the chicken retain moisture successfully, making this dish a much more forgiving meal for the home cook to serve. Unless, of course, you have a sous chef and a battalion of line cooks at your disposal, manned at their individual food stations and ready for action in which case you should go for the veal.

Using mascarpone, sour cream, Greek-style yogurt or creme fraiche as a binder instead of the traditional egg mixture makes the chicken even more tender and imparts a very pleasant though almost imperceptible tang to the chicken.

I also prefer to keep the coating crisp by not immersing the cutlets in the sauce before serving but instead by keeping them warm separately & then plating them together: serving most of the sauce around the cutlet & only drizzling a small amount of sauce on top of the chicken for artistic effect. A side of capellini with olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic & fresh grated parmesan, or some sauteed haricot vert rounds out this dish nicely.

Serves 4-6 friends recovering from an overly long visit with an asshole


For the chicken:

  • 1- 1/4 lb of boneless, skinless chicken breast, tenders removed, carefully pounded 1/4" to 1/2" thick depending on size of the breast (do not tear the meat), about 6-8 cutlets
  • 1/2 cup of flour
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine fresh ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup of panko (japanese breadcrumbs), regular unseasoned breadcrumbs can be substituted
  • 1/2 cup grated parmeggiano-reggiano
  • handful of finely chopped parsley sprigs, leaves only
  • 1/2 cup of room temperature mascarpone or creme fraiche (sour cream can be substituted)
  • 2 Tablespoons of milk
  • 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
  • 1/3 cup of refined peanut oil or 'light' olive oil
  • 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

For the sauce:

  • 1 Tablespoon butter + 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for sauteing
  • 3 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into dice to thicken sauce
  • 1 large shallot, finely minced
  • 3 Tablespoons of capers, drained
  • 2 small lemons, juice only
  • 1/3 cup chicken stock, low sodium
  • 1/2 cup of white wine (sauvignon blanc or a light Italian from the Fruili region is nice)
  • 2 Tablespoons of parsley or chervil


Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Wrap the inside of a large baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a large footed cooling or baking rack on top. Place prepared baking sheet to heat in oven until further instructions.

In a large dish or large shallow bowl, combine the dried herbs, salt, pepper and flour, set aside.

Using a large mixing bowl, place the softened mascarpone or creme fraiche, add the dijon combining well then add the milk 1 Tablespoon at a time until the mixture thins out to a yogurt-like consistency, set aside.
In another large dish or large shallow bowl, evenly combine the panko, grated cheese and minced parsley.

Set the dishes up in an assembly line starting with flour first, the mascarpone mixture next to it and the panko mixture placed last (next to the mascarpone).

Place a large empty platter or cutting board next to the panko mixture.

Next, using large tongs, place the chicken breasts in the flour mixture dredging each one until completely covered.

Remove chicken breasts from flour one at a time, carefully tapping off excess flour over flour plate before placing them in cheese mixture.

Using tongs, make sure the cheese mixture completely coats each breast. Allow chicken to marinate in mixture for 15 minutes.

After marinating, remove each breast one at a time, allowing excess coating to drip off chicken before placing it in the panko mixture & coating them thoroughly with the panko. After all the breasts have been coated, carefully shake off excess breading before placing on the large empty platter. The cutlets should be thoroughly but not too thickly coated.

Heat a large (14") non-stick pan over medium high heat.
Add half of both oils to start frying.

When oil is hot (test by adding a pinch of salt or breadcrumbs), carefully add 1 layer of the chicken breasts. Do not allow the chicken breasts to touch each other or the sides of the pan. Always try to avoid 'overcrowding' the pan. Cook the chicken in batches, if necessary.

Let chicken cook without disturbing for 3-4 minutes on the first side. When the first side looks golden brown (take a peek after 3 minutes by carefully lifting a corner of it) turn the chicken using the tongs and a thin wooden or sturdy rubber spatula and cook 3 minutes on the other side.

Using oven mitts, remove hot baking pan from the oven and place cooked chicken breasts on rack and return pan to oven keeping chicken warm and uncovered while the rest of the cutlets are frying. Continue to cook the remaining cutlets in saute pan adding additional oil as needed.

When finished frying, place the remaining cutlets in oven on rack, lower heat to 200 degrees and prepare sauce.

Using the same pan that the chicken was fried in, take a paper towel and without burning yourself, blot out excess oil or burnt panko but leave any browned bits from the chicken jus in the pan.

Heat the pan over medium setting and when hot add 1 Tablespoon of butter & 1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.

When butter melts add shallots cooking them until soft but not brown about 1 or 2 minutes.
Add capers and stir, saute capers for 30 seconds then turn heat to high and immediately add wine deglazing the pan by stirring up and loosening any of the dried juices that have stuck to pan with the wine; when the wine is reduced by half add the chicken stock, stirring occasionally until it has reduced by half then add lemon juice and stir again.

After 30 seconds or so add chervil or parsley and remove the sauce from the heat.
Then add the butter one cube at a time, stirring continuously until all the butter is added and an emulsion has formed.

If the sauce is too thick or buttery add a splash of white wine.

Taste the sauce for seasoning, adding salt & pepper to taste.

Turn oven off. Remove cutlets from oven. Serve on warm plates with sauce.