"Indeed," Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. "Have you eaten terrapin stewed with butter and chicken broth and sherry?"
"Or the Creole Tripe of New Orleans? Or Missouri Boone County ham, baked with vinegar, molasses, Worcestershire, sweet cider and herbs? Or Chicken Marengo? Or chicken in curdled egg sauce, with raisins, onions, almonds, sherry and Mexican sausage? Or Tennessee Oppossum? Or Lobster Newburgh? Or Philadelphia Snapper Soup? But I see you haven't." Wolfe pointed a finger at him. "The gastronome's heaven is France, granted. But he would do well, on his way there, to make a detour hereabouts..."
- Too Many Cooks, by Rex Stout
I am a huge fan of Rex Stout and his iconic gastronome/detective Nero Wolfe. I love the fact that he's always defending American cuisine even if I've never heard of half of the dishes he lauds. Shad roe? I've found it mentioned in cookbooks at least 50 years old but I wouldn't know where to find it today - in the US or Europe. Okay, I'm not absolutely certain I want to try Tennessee Oppossum, but his list does make me feel like I'm very unfamiliar with the cuisine of my native country. Either that or he made up half those dishes. You never know.
In any case, in my fifteen years (has it really been that long?) of living in Europe, I have frequently found myself trying to defend the charge that "America has no cuisine". As an au pair, I encountered a lofty ten year old who lectured me on the American tendency to over cook meat (this on a night when I was making pork chops, sigh) or the fact that we all "eat with our fingers". Hamburgers are not "cuisine" and anyway, they are named after a German city. I'm never very good at refuting these accusations, in part because I get so irritated that I can't marshall my thoughts clearly. It's true that we do not have a few thousand years of cooking under our belts to brag about. But then most Italians claim that the French had no cuisine to speak of either until they started visiting Italy in the 16th century and poached their ideas.
It's true that Americans have had less need to develop a cultural identity in the kitchen: we have ineherited such a rich and variegated culture from the many countries that contributed to our population that it's unneccessary. If anything, our cuisine would be defined by the ways that we have mixed different cultural traditions, or by the ways in which we have brought new world ingredients to old world recipes, to the benefit of both. My dear English husband does not consider Christmas properly celebrated unless it includes a very large turkey. Back in Dickens' days, the roast bird would have been a goose, but a tender American turkey has proven a much more popular roast bird in his home land, tender, easy to raise and much less fatty.
So what does that have to do with today's dish? Well, it was inspired in a large part by one of the Critic's favourite American dishes: the ubiquitous bar snack, the humble buffalo wings. Love them or hate them, you have to admit there is something distinctly American about them. Where else in the world would you see blue cheese and tabasco sauce combined with a side of celery? For me, it's a guilty pleasure. I hate the grease, hate the fact that it's made badly in every TGIF or chain bar in the country, and love the greasy, salty hot satisfaction of them. I've tried several times at home to reproduce the best of the combination while losing some of the grease and so far this is the best effort. I'm afraid it will never really be as satisfying until the day when I give in and deep fry it...but it is a lot healthier and still pretty tasty.
Chipotle and Blue Cheese Chicken (serves 2)
2 boneless chicken breasts (free range, organic, if possible)
4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (half a small can)
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp celery salt
4-5 Tbs butter or olive oil
For the sauce:
75 grams blue cheese (I used a Rocquefort)
1 heaping Tbs crème fraîche or cream
freshly ground black pepper
Place the chicken breasts between two sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap and pound them until uniformly thin - between half and three-quarters of a centimeter. Carefully place two peppers and a little sauce on each of the breasts and fold the meat to completely cover the peppers and sauce. Beat the egg in a shallow bowl. Mix the flour and celery salt in a shallow bowl. Place the bread crumbs in a third shallow bowl. Carefully dip the first chicken breast in the flour and celery salt mixture. Then equally carefully, dip it in the egg mixture, holding the fold in place so that the pepper stuffing remains safely inside. Roll the breast in the bread crumbs and set aside. Repeat with the second breast. At this point you can put the plate with the breasts in the refrigerator if you have the time: it will help the breasts to set and is also convenient if you are making enough for guests. When you are ready to cook them, melt the butter or heat the oil in a pan. Add the breasts and cook over a fairly high flame until the first side of the breasts is nicely browned and crisp, 5-7 minutes. Turn over and cook for another five minutes, or until browned and cooked through. You can gently pry apart the seam of the chicken where you have folded it over the peppers to confirm that it is white through, with no raw pink meat remaining. If necessary, turn down the heat and cook for a bit longer.
For the sauce: crumble the cheese into the cream and heat over a low flame until melted and smooth. Season to taste with a generous grinding of fresh black pepper. It probably won't need salt as most blue cheeses have a fairly high salt content.
Serve the sauce in a small dipping bowl next to the meat; it's prettier that way and also allows you to keep that crispy exterior on the chicken breast. I opted to include some freshly steamed broccoli with the chicken and it was delicious with the remaining blue cheese sauce.
Take one toddler, 20 hardboiled eggs*, 5 lumps the size of a small pea of food colouring, water and 10 tablespoons white vinegar. Mix the last three items (divided) in five beakers or cups. Allow the toddler to carefully lower an egg into each cup. Then help him remove them, one by one, placing them back on the egg tray to dry. Repeat until all eggs are dyed. Enjoy!
* For hardboiled eggs, place them gently in a pot of cold water and bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the eggs for 12 minutes. Drain and cool in a bowl of cold water before proceeding with the egg dyeing.
On the same day that I found the aillet (garlic shoots!) and shallot shoots at the market, I happened to notice that my favourite fish stall had a longer line than usual. I was waiting for a friend to finish her purchases and wandered over to the fish, wondering what prompted the long line. Sadly for my friend (who ended up having to wait for me some 20 minutes as a result) I saw the reason for the excitement: wild salmon and wild tuna were on offer.
I haven't posted a salmon or tuna recipe in a long time because I decided some months ago that I really couldn't support farmed fishing as it's carried out these days. All the evidence shows that it's bad for the environment and not terribly good for consumption. It is good for the economy in countries suffering from failing fish stocks, but that is about it. So I asked at this same fish stall about wild alternatives and was told with a superior laugh "We don't sell it. It is beyond expensive." (The expressive French phrase "hors du prix"...) And when I started looking carefully at the labels in supermarkets and fish shops I quickly realised that farmed fish is ubiquitous in France when it comes to salmon and tuna.
Ironically, this is the same stall that was selling the stuff last week. I'm not one to hold a grudge, though. I lined up with the other patrons and anxiously counted the people in front of me to calculate what would be left by the time I arrived at the front of the queue. As it turns out, I had the last slice of tuna and there was plenty of salmon. And the price? More expensive than the usual fish but by no means beyond my budget: five portions of fish came to just under 30 euros. And to be honest, you really could taste the difference. The wild fish had so much more flavour to it that I'm more than happy to eat it less frequently and enjoy it more!
And with 20 minutes of waiting in line, I had plenty of time to contemplate what to do with my fish once I had bought it.
The first idea I had was for the salmon steaks. With garlic shoots, young leeks and tender spinach in my trolley already (and a constant supply of ginger at home: I rarely run out because I love it so much) I decided to go with an Asian slant.
Wild Salmon with garlic shoots and leeks on a bed of wilted baby spinach
3 salmon steaks (I used darnes de saumon, which are sliced through the spine of the fish with the bone left in place)
2 large handfuls of tender fresh spinach
3 garlic shoots
2 young leeks
2-3 Tbs light soy sauce
1 cube of ginger about 1"/2.5 cm, peeled and minced
1 Tbs sunflower or vegetable oil
Clean the garlic shoots and leeks. Slice off the root ends and the green tops and then slice in thin roundels. Heat the oil in a large frying pan with high sides and add the garlic shoots and leek. Cook until soft, but not browned. With a slotted spoon, remove them from the pan to a bowl. Wash the spinach and spin or shake it dry. Add it to the pan and cover; allow it to cook on a medium/low heat for 4-5 minutes, or until just barely wilted. Add the leeks and garlic shoots back to the pan along with the soy sauce and toss until the spinach is dressed. Remove all to a warm plate and cover with the frying pan lid to keep warm.
Rinse the salmon steaks, pat them dry and add them to the frying pan. (You may want to add a little more oil if there is not enough left to coat the bottom of the pan.) Turn up the heat and quickly brown on each side - about five minutes for the first and three for the second, depending on the thickness of your steaks.
Divide the spinach between three plates and place the salmon steaks on top. Use the soy sauce and garlic/leeks mixture left on the warm plate to dress the tops of the steaks. If they have all come away with the spinach bed, you can simply drizzle a small amount of soy sauce over each steak.
For the tuna steaks, I decided on a more Mediterranean flavour. Although tomatoes are distinctly out of season at the moment, I splurged on some juicy deep red cherry tomatoes for the sauce. Yes, they probably were grown in a hothouse (in France, at least!) at some cost to the environment. But I'm not a green freak: I just like to make my departures from green living a conscious splurge. And at the very end of a long season of root vegetables (also known as Winter) I need to splurge on some bright vitamin-filled vegetables occasionally. With fresh young garlic, sharp shallot shoots and salty anchovies, it sang with flavour and complemented the wild tuna perfectly.
Tuna with tomato, garlic and anchovy salsa
2 thin boneless tuna steaks
20 small very ripe cherry tomatoes
10 anchovy filets, rinsed and chopped, reserving a few whole filets for garnishing
4-5 garlic shoots, cleaned, topped and tipped and sliced in thin rounds
4-5 shallot shoots, cleaned, topped and tipped and sliced in thin rounds
2-3 Tbs olive oil
In a frying pan, heat enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan (barely) and add the rinsed and dried tuna steaks. Cook to your preference: because I'm pregnant (and because the critic likes his sushi raw and his cooked fish cooked) I left them until they were just barely rosy in the center. Remove to a warm plate. Add the rest of the oil to the pan and and the chopped garlic and shallot shoots. While they are softening, wash and halve the tomatoes. Add them to the pan and cook for a few moments until they are soft. Stir in the chopped anchovies and cook until they are partially dissolved and the whole mess smells delightfully garlicky and salty and tangy.
Plate the tuna steaks and cover them partially with the salsa. Garnish with the remaining anchovy filets.
Although my two fish dishes were delightfully delicious...I'm afraid they were not particularly pretty when I came to photograph them. This is the best of the photos - tuna looking a bit bland next to the garish tomatoes. I'm a cook, not a photographer!