Friday, February 26, 2010

Absinthe: Wilde, Hemingway & Leibovitz

Absinthe Robette

Oscar Wilde said "Absinthe was as poetical as anything in the world."

Absinthe was called "la fée verte" (the green fairy) and was so popular by the 1860’s (French Legionnaires had been given it for malaria and developed a taste for it when they returned home), that 5 pm was called “l’heure verte” (the green hour) in France. So much so that the drink became something of a scourge to the lower classes.* Since it has been fairly well disproved that absinthe’s wormwood component, with its small amount of the notorious chemical thujone (also in sage and some mint) played much of a part in this, the high alcohol content (often 120 Proof or more) was probably the real culprit for the physical and mental decline of its abusers.

Glass and Spoon from Absinthe Devil

Early on, absinthe was only served with a glass, ice water and sugar and the customer would mix them together themselves. * Soon a shallow dish that sat on top of the absinthe with a small hole in its bottom called a Brouilleur or Plateau was used (although they could be complicated devices that would drip mechanically like the Auto Verseur –amazing to watch in action at Vertdabsinthe ) .

Photo from the virtual absinthe museum

With the absinthe fountain (a glass container of ice water with 2 to 6 robinets or spigots) many sugar cubes could be dripped upon at once using lovely spoons and glasses for that purpose. However it’s done, this is a slow process!

2 Robinet Absinthe Fountain from Absinthe Devi

Glasses that were specifically made for absinthe “had a dose line, bulge, or bubble in the lower portion denoting how much absinthe should be poured in. One "dose" of absinthe is around 1 ounce (30 ml) with water added in a 3 to 1 ratio.” Wikipedia tells us.

Eric Asimov for the NYT’s said: “Water not only changes the flavors, it almost magically alters the appearance of the absinthe. As you slowly add water, the liquid in the glass seems to thicken, and transforms into an opalescent pastel cloud, seeping down into a pool of green like sweetened tears. The French call this effect the louche (which has the wonderful double meaning of turbulent in French and disreputable in English). Technically, when absinthe is distilled, the anise and fennel oils dissolve into the alcohol. As the water dilutes the alcohol, it frees the oils from their molecular prison, and they form a cloudy suspension.”

Now to confuse you completely, there are clear absinthes called Blanche or la Bleue that turn a brilliant white in the glass when water is added instead of the usual cloudy green.

Hitchcock’s Suspicion

Think of the great scene from Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” when Cary Grant carries that too white milk (yes there was a light bulb involved) up the stairs to the not-as-gullible-as-she-used-to-be Joan Fontaine

Hitchcock’s Suspicion

The clear Germain-Robin Absinthe Superiure that I tried did just that. Turned white as white could be.

Limelight Painting by Detlef Kotzte, Glass and Spoon from Absinthe Devil

Eric Asimov, wine critic for the NYT’s, recommended this absinthe. I usually agree with his taste (critics have personalities too!) and have been inspired by his column to try so many things. He got my attention when he said Germain-Robin “begins by distilling an almost biblical-sounding eau de vie, of apples and honey. After steeping herbs and botanicals in the eau de vie, he [Crispin Cain the distiller] gradually adds water, then distills it again. The exquisite result is an absinthe of unusual purity, with a natural sweetness that requires no added sugar.”

Far be it from me to try to describe alcohol or perfume properly, but the taste is clear like an Eau de Vie… a very complex Eau de Vie with a million little quiet back flavors. I agreed with The Wormwood Society when they said it was: “Subtle, complex, and absolutely beautiful” (call me a troglodyte but I did like a swish of sugar). Wouldn’t that make you want to give it a try?

Leal da Camara 1903 L’Assiette au Beurr

Although wrongfully vilified and outlawed for 100 years, (and perhaps because of its bad reputation) reveals I’m not the only one to fall under its spell, ”absinthe inspired many prominent artists, writers and poets like Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Manet and Ernest Hemingway - in fact his masterpiece " For Whom The Bell Tolls " was written under the influence of "The Green Fairy".”

Harold McGee, in the NYT’s, found Hemingway’s recipe for an absinthe cocktail in a celebrity recipe book:

Hemingway's Absinthe Champagne

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

(you should read the article… amazing revelation that champagne bubbles are mostly caused by cellulose and cotton fibers---dust!!)

Every time I watch the scene in Bram Stoker's Dracula where Gary and Winona do that pas de trois with the Green fairy and Oldman calls it “the aphrodisiac of the self” with that perfect accent, I swoon (watch here). I’ll admit, that wicked reputation has been enticing me for ever so long, and at last I got the chance to give the green fairy a spin around the block using St. George’s inestimable Absinthe Verte (fine brandy infused with wormwood, anise, fennel, hyssop, basil, tarragon, lemon balm, meadowsweet, mint, and stinging nettles), for my ride!

So I got myself a glass of absinthe, turned on the oven, baked a fabulous David Lebovitz Absinthe Cake from The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City

I took a picture) and then ate it with another perfectly louched glass of la fée verte Hemingway style with champagne as l’heure verte quickly approached.

I would like to make a virtual toast to my fallen friend, KG Cannon, one of the most generous humans I ever knew. I had wanted to give him an Absinthe birthday party this weekend. He would have loved the ceremony of the green fairy because he loved ceremony, fine things and well-set tables, believing as he did “ it is truly useful since it is beautiful”. Farewell my dear friend, who always reminded me: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (The Little Prince was his favorite book).

Absinthe Cake Adapted from David Leibovitz Recipe

1 ¼ teaspoon anise seeds

1 ¼ cup cake flour
 (didn’t have it so I added a T of cornstarch)
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons pistachio or almond meal (that can be made in the spice grinder but make sure they are not salted!!!!) or stone-ground yellow cornmeal. Try to make the pistachio for the beautiful color and flavor it gives.
2 teaspoons baking powder (no aluminum is best)
¼ teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons room temperature
 unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar

2 room temperature
 large eggs, (or 3 small)
¼ cup milk

¼ cup Absinthe
 ( I used Absinthe Verte-but you could use Pernod))
¼ to ½ tsp. orange Zest

For the Absinthe glaze:

¼ cup sugar
( I used regular Whole Foods Organic and a large grain Demerara)
¼ cup Absinthe

1. Preheat the oven to 350º. After you butter a 9-inch loaf pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.

2. Grind the anise seeds until fine. Sift together the flour, pistachio meal, baking powder, salt, and anise seeds.

3. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, until they're completely incorporated.

4. Mix together the milk and Absinthe with orange zest.

5. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the beaten butter, then the milk and Absinthe mixture.

6. By hand, stir in the other half of the dry ingredients until just smooth and no more. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

7. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool 30 minutes.

8. To glaze the cake, use a toothpick and poke holes all over the top of the cake. In a small bowl, gently stir together the sugar and Absinthe until just mixed. (and more orange zest if you wish) Leave the texture sandy… it will sparkle!

9. Remove the cake from the loaf pan and set the cake on a rack.

10. Spoon Absinthe glaze over the top and sides of the cake, allowing it to soak the top and spill down the sides a bit. Continue until all glaze is used up.

Oscar Wilde 1882 by Napoleon Sarony (Library of Congress)

I wanted to use an Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) quote to begin this post on absinthe but discovered that the famous quote I wanted kept appearing with different wording! It had to do with stages of absinthe inebriation. The Virtual Absinthe Museum saw the same problem and discovered 2 sources penned 30 at most 50 years after his death. Kudos! Two versions! This was the reason that I kept seeing it quoted differently! Such are the ways of memory. As Previously noted, the recent death of a great friend and raconteur of Wildean wit, KG Cannon, has made this so clear… how our stories vary!!! How his stories varied!

John Fothergill/ 1930 Fox Photos

I am rather fond of John Fothergill (1876-1957) famous gentleman host at “The Spread Eagle” and known for the wonderful An Innkeeper's Diary. His recollection, “Absinthe and Oscar” —was written 50 years after Wilde’s death:

“At Berneval (where Wilde stayed after release from prison in 1897) Oscar Wilde told me - all in his great heavy drawl-of the three stages of Absinthe drinking. The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful and curious things.”

Ada Leverson

Ada Leverson (1866-1930), a friend of Wilde’s whom he called the Sphinx and the wittiest woman in the world and who sheltered him after the terrible trial* wrote in “Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde and Reminiscences of the Author” in 1930 :

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.' `How do you mean?' `I mean disassociated. Take a top-hat! You think you see it as it really is. But you don't, because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you'd be frightened, or laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.”

2013 update:
I finally made my own absinthe from scratch with mostly my own fresh herbs.  It is a marvel and incredibly green for a few weeks.

*I am forever grateful to Wikipedia, where facts often come from, if not always phrasing!

Anyone who would like to get a fuller understanding of all things Absinthe should stop by or or or or for the full story and some really cool pictures. All I can do (and still hold down a job) is give you a taste of history and invite you along as I try these various products that I (as a food geek) have been dying to try and/or learn about… a foodie “Bucket List” or share favorites that I just can’t keep to myself.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Chanterelle's Salmon With Beet & Lime Butters

Once upon a time there was a wonderful restaurant in NYC called Chanterelle. First in Soho and then in Tribeca, it served inspired food for 30 years.

Photo by Shana Ravindra
I was strangely bereft to hear they had given up the restaurant. It had been in my constellation of best NYC establishments forever having eaten in both the Soho and Tribeca iterations during their 30-year history. Even their employee meals (usually the subject of wailing and rending of garments) were legendary, and chef Waltuck's first book, Staff Meals from Chanterellewas written not about the restaurant's food but about the staff meals!
Photo by Shana Ravindra
They had closed for renovations but then suddenly closed for good. I will miss their creativity and quiet elegance and will share with you my favorite recipe from there… although there are so many in the chef David Waltuck’s fabulous cookbook, Chanterelle. This one is not in the book but pulled from a magazine a zillion years ago.
I will miss you, Chanterelle, and your fabulous menus by amazing and famous Soho/Tribeca artists (which are now being sold online) and wonderful atmosphere of coddling and comfort
This is my favorite salmon sauce and I have been making it since I first had it 20-odd years ago in their restaurant. It is delicious and gorgeous. I tried to re-create the design that was popular in the 80’s…it is a memory that goes with the dish and the colors are out of this world. Just a few circles of lime butter (this can’t be too hot or it will not work) in the beet and a toothpick to pull through the lines and you are good to go.
With thanks to Chanterelle I give you:
Salmon with Beet and Lime Butters.
Salmon for 2
12 oz Salmon Filet
2 t. mustard
1 T maple syrup (I use Martha Stewart’s Basil Jelly*** - which is the best)
1T soy sauce
4 T butter
S & P to taste
Slather the fish with the mustard, maple syrup, soy and salt and pepper and let sit and hour or so. Heat the butter in a pan over medium heat and cook the salmon, skin side up. Flip when browned and cover till done in about 3 minutes for medium rare. It is even better grilled outside over charcoal…if you have access, do it that way (oil the grill first) when it’s not below zero outside! PS This is my recipe and not Chef Waltucks! The butters are his.
Beet Butter
2-3 beets (6 oz)
2 T shallots
3 T red wine vinegar
½ c white wine
2 T cream
¼ to ½ c butter in chunks
Bake the beets, wrapped in foil for 1 hour at 375º. Peel the beets. Puree in blender with water as needed
Reduce the shallots, vinegar and white wine to a syrup. Add syrup and cream to puree.
Warm and add butter slowly to keep sauce from separating
Lime butter
Juice of 3 limes
½ c white wine
3 T cream
¼ to ½ c butter, in chunks
Reduce lime juice and wine to a syrup and add cream. Keep warm and add butter over low heat to keep the sauce together.
Serve butters together with the Salmon. You can make the combined butters sweet or tart depending on how much of each you use.
***I will give you the recipe if you ask… will post it one of these days!!

Original 1990 version of dish for Victoria Magazine
I just found this photo over the weekend, hasn't food styling/photography changed a lot!
I also wanted to tell everyone that Karen Waltuck saw everyone's lovely words and was touched. I am so glad. The restaurant was so well thought of and loved!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine's Duck Breast with Orange Rose Madeira Sauce

Miniature of the "Ménagier de Paris", 15th century

While thinking about an appropriate dish to serve for Valentine’s Day, I came upon a wonderful recipe with the soul of a rose in its sauce. It comes from one of the earliest cookbooks, The Goodman of Paris (Le Menagier de Paris) from 1393 that was written by an older husband for his young wife. In it are remarkably thorough lessons on keeping house, being a good wife and hostess, gardening and even sexual advice as well as fine recipes (more like suggestions since ingredients and instructions are loosely provided). Janet Hinson translates the passage:

"Item: partridge must be plucked dry, and cut off the claws and head, put in boiling water, then stick with venison if you have any, or bacon, and eat with fine salt, or in cold water and rose water and a little wine, or in three parts rose water, orange juice and wine, the forth part."

Menagier de Paris, 15th C Copy, Lancelots.ex

I thought about this for a spell and decided to mix it up a little and use duck, another fowl with an affinity for oranges.

Both Delmonico's chef Ranhoffer (I wrote about him here) and Antoine Careme use Sauce Bigarade for their duck, a bitter orange sauce that was traditionally made with a floury espangnole sauce to thicken it ( I included the recipe for bigarade for you to see the old style sauce). I decided I wanted it a little brighter and then added a bit of rose absolute to honor Le Menagier recipe and Valentine's Day. Think of it as distilling 500 years of cooking!

James Auduban, 1821-34

And then we come to the duck. While researching antique American menus, I found canvasback duck appeared frequently as the sine qua non of duck… often costing twice as much as other things on a menu (that and terrapin). I really wanted to use this duck. Further digging found some interesting facts.

William Vinje for USFWS

The name of the lovely creature in Latin, Aythya valisineria, is based on its eating habits… it loves wild celery, Vallisneria Americana which is what gave it its extraordinary flavor (perhaps Heston Blumenthal thought of this when he was feeding his Christmas goose fennel pollen!). What I also didn’t know is that its popularity nearly drove it to extinction.

An article from an 1890 NYT tells the story of the dilemma and the efforts of sportsmen to reverse the trend and save them for future generations. I was amazed that such thinking goes back so far. Thanks to them, however, sportsmen today can still bring a few of them home from hunts and taste their delicious meat… not as delicious as before however since the wild celery is nearly gone… a victim of encroaching civilization on its habitats.

Hank at Honest Food has tasted a west coast canvasback and raves about its flavor in his wonderful blog. I have never had the pleasure but hope one day to have a morsel -- just not this time.
I decided to use a lovely magret du canard from a moulard duck, at the suggestion of Hank via the lovely purveyors D’Artagnan (that also happen to be neighbors of mine!)

I do not have words to describe the dish... it was that good... swoon good, to die for good. The caramel with the reduced orange and madeira and the rose... you will think you have entered sauce heaven!!!

Duck with Orange Rose Madeira Sauce and Gingered Sweet Potatoes on Radicchio
for 2-4

2 duck breasts (12 oz or more muskovy or the lighter 8 oz moulard)*****
salt & Pepper

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

With a sharp knife score the fat of the duck breasts in a criss-cross pattern. Season the duck with salt and pepper. Warm a cast iron skillet over medium heat Place the duck breasts, fat side down, in the skillet to render the fat, about 6 minutes. Turn the duck breasts over and sear for 1 minute. Turn the fat side down again and place the skillet into the oven to roast for 7 minutes, until breasts are medium rare. Rest them for 5 minutes then slice.

***** Duck breasts can come in smaller sizes than the hefty muskovy. If you are using a smaller size (8 oz) only roast in the skillet in the oven for 4-5 minutes.

**This recipe for the duck breast comes from the food network. It had been in my files and I did not know who to attribute it to. now I do.

Blood Orange Rose Madeira Sauce

2 Blood Oranges (you can of course use regular oranges) 

1/4 c sugar (I use Whole Food's Organic)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/2 c Charleston Sercial Special Madeira
1T 1922 D'Oliveira Bual (optional)
2 Drops Rose Absolute or 2 t. rosewater or to taste

1 shallot, finely chopped 

1 sprig of marjoram if you have it, thyme if you do not 

1 c chicken stock
2 T unsalted chilled butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Zest one orange. Blanch for 5 minutes in boiling water, drain and set aside. Squeeze the juice from the oranges and set aside. Dissolve the sugar in a heavy pan over moderate heat and cook to a deep caramel. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and pour in the vinegar.

Stir in the madeira and return the pan to the heat. Dissolve the sugar, add the shallots and marjoram, then bring the madeira to a good simmer. Reduce to about 1/2 of what it was, then pour in the stock and 3/4 of the orange juice. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and reduce by half. Strain through a fine sieve and discard the shallots and marjoram.

Start whisking in the butter, a piece at a time, then stir in the orange zest. Simmer for a few minutes. Add the lemon and reserved orange juice to taste (the sauce is sweet and the juices will brighten it). Add the rose absolute (or rosewater) and old madeira at this point... do not overheat. Slice your duck and pour the sauce over the slices.

Thanks to Gordon for inspiration for this!

Sweet Potatoes with ginger and lime for 2 to 4

1 large sweet potato
1 t. grated ginger
zest of 1 lime and juice of 1/2 the lime
4 T cream
1/4 t salt
Cook the sweet potatoes till tender then rice them. Add the rest of the ingredients then whip.
For those of you who want to try it old school:

Sauce bigarade: Antonin Careme's recipe:

1 bigarade orange (or a bitter orange).
1.5 dl of finished espagnole sauce*.
20g butter.
a pinch of cracked pepper.

Cut the zest of the orange making sure that there are no white bits on it. Blanch them briefly. Press the orange.

In a thick bottom pot, place the orange zests and the juice and reduce by half.
Add the espagnole sauce and and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Skim from time to time. Add the cracked pepper and strain through a fine chinois.

Just before serving, whisk in the butter

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Friday, February 5, 2010


The Garden of Pleasure, 15th C. Flemish

Roman de la Rose was a transformational 13th century work written by 2 different people 45 years apart springing no doubt from the Poitier’s court of the incandescent Eleanor of Aquitaine. The work came at the beginning of the literary tradition of courtly love”concurrent with the first bloom of Arthurian legend (Chretién de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth were nearly contemporaries) and remarkable for the way it explored love in its many forms.

First page of University of Chicago Library copy

Its popularity was extraordinary since it predated the printing press by hundreds of years and circulated only through beautiful illuminated books (hundreds of which still exist today).

"Love Roundplay", from French book illustration, master of the "Roman de la Rose", c. 1420/30; Archiv fur Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin.

Circulate it did, in spite of the church throwing up rather unfortunate draconian rules and regulations regarding sex with really, really unfortunate consequences for those who disregarded them (roasting, chopping, flaying, castrating, filling with hot lead...all while still alive).

14th C. Copy, University of Chicago

Perhaps these rules were in direct response to the life-style portrayed in Roman de la Rose and other kindred works that glorified romantic love and flirted with barely disguised sexuality.

Pavane, British Library

Roman de la Rose begins as an allegorical dream set within a walled garden (locus amoenus, or ‘pleasant place’ with Garden-of-Eden leanings) that represents romantic life. What lies beyond is ‘la vie ordinaire’.

Enclosed Garden, BL MS Egerton 1069, 1400

In the dream, a young man gazes into The Fountain of Narcissus and falls in love with a rosebud. He never consummates his desire (one of the fundamentals of courtly love is that love be unrequited yet transcendant and usually secret). The second and later part opens the work up to the world and its eroticism is richer with many associations with the Latin poet Ovid’s The Art of Love . Interestingly, the rose in this book is not just a symbol of the female, closed it signifies the male.

Declan McCullagh photograph

The rose became associated with love as it was the favorite flower of Venus, the goddess of love in Roman mythology. It has remained so evermore and the idea of giving roses to one’s beloved probably had roots in the language of flowers that dates back to antiquity and eventually grafted itself onto Valentine’s Day. Red roses still imply passionate, romantic love and pink roses a lesser affection; white roses suggest virtue and chastity and yellow roses still stand for friendship or devotion.


For most of us, the ultimate romantic aphrodesiac is chocolate but Europe wouldn’t know its seductive properties until Columbus brought it back from the New World. Theobroma cacao in Greek means ‘food of the gods’. You probably see where I’m going with this. Roses are flowers of the gods, and chocolate…well, Elaine Sherman, “Madame Chocolate”, wrote “Chocolate is heavenly, mellow, sensual, deep, dark, sumptuous, gratifying, potent, dense, creamy, seductive, suggestive, rich, excessive, silky, smooth, luxurious, celestial. Chocolate is downfall, happiness, pleasure, love, ecstasy, fantasy … chocolate makes us wicked, guilty, sinful, healthy, chic, happy.” The Aztecs thought that it was a source of spiritual wisdom and sexual power

For Valentine’s Day, I will share with you my favorite cupcake, gathered long ago from the pages of the old Victoria Magazine. There is nothing better than chocolate flavored with roses… well almost nothing… and these will get you in the mood for, well, you know. I used Mandy Aftel’s Rose Absolute for the cupcakes for the first time and was over the moon with the results after using rosewater for many years… try to use it if you can.

Happy Valentines Day!!!!!

Romance of the Rose Chocolate Cupcakes

1 ½ c Flour

½ c Cocoa powder

1 ½ t. baking powder

¼ t salt

2 L eggs

1 c sugar

¾ c buttermilk

½ t. vanilla

1 stick butter

2 oz. chocolate, chopped

Set your oven at 350º. Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder and salt in one bowl. Combine the sugar and the eggs and beat till golden and smooth, add the buttermilk and vanilla. Melt the butter and add the chocolate stir till melted with a gentle heat then add the dry ingredients then the wet. Makes 12-15 cupcakes. Cook for 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Frost with:

Rose Frosting

1 cup powder sugar, sifted

4 T butter, softened

1 T Cream or milk if frosting is too stiff

3 drops Rose Absolute or 2 t. rosewater (do this to your taste)

Rosebuds for decoration

Whip together till a smooth frosting develops and frost your cupcakes. Eat and swoon.

*** If you are laying on the frosting with abandon as I did, you will need to triple the recipe.

Supposedly, the earliest Valentine card is in the British Museum and was written by the Duke of Orleans to his wife in France when he was locked in the Tower in 1415

Je suis desja d'amour tanné

Ma tres doulce Valentinée…

Duke of Orleans letter in British Museum

I will announce the winner of the Jasmine and Rose Absolutes this weekend!!!

Where to get the rose absolute!

for great furniture and objects!