Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cornmeal: Where the North and South Lay Down Their Arms and Embrace


Corn cakes tin OK, as a writer, I know that’s a mixed metaphor, or at least a trick with homonyms. But as someone who divides her time (no pun intended) between the True North and the Deep South, who is a RI Yankee in Jefferson Davis’s court, and is all too aware of the political, religious, and cultural differences, it is nice to have something on which we can agree. Cornmeal is that something.

Rachel, one of my most loyal readers—and eloquent commenters—recently bestowed upon me an honorary G.R.I.T.S. designation, which I humbly accept. For you Yankee readers who, like me, had no idea what this meant when I first heard the acronym, it means Girl Raised in the South. This, apparently, is akin to a secret society, is a high honor, and may even entail ancient rituals into which, if so, I hope to be initiated. There might even be hazing: I suspect that this might include baptismal dunking in buttermilk or partially set Jell-o®, force-feeding of fried chicken, memorization and recitation of the methodology, highly refined over generations, for making the men think they are in god-like charge while the women actually control everything and do whatever they want (a practice for which I may be constitutionally unsuited, but that fascinates nevertheless), and marathon shopping in endless strip malls containing surprisingly exclusive boutiques. Sounds like fun.

In any case, neither true Yankees nor Southerners would be caught dead using anything but stone-ground cornmeal—here in Rhode Island we even have our own revered strain of corn—and we both use it for everything from breading and breads and sweet cakes and some variant of jonnycake to our own forms of mush, which Southerners call grits. And we both mix the latter with cheese, a meltingly good, somewhat decadent, combination. Here, cornmeal is cooked to a polenta-like stage, fried up, and topped with whatever you may please.


Little Cornmeal-Cheese Cakes

You can serve these as cocktail appetizers (topped with, for example, a little chopped tomato sautéed with pancetta; chopped marinated roasted red peppers; roasted figs and onions; or a little corn and tomato cooked in cream), or for breakfast with bacon. Leftovers reheat acceptably in the microwave. Serves3- 4.

1 cup boiling water
½ cup stone-ground yellow or white cornmeal
½ tea salt
½ cup whole milk
1 cup store cheese (good-quality aged cheddar), grated or cut in chunks

Flour for dusting
Butter and oil for frying

Mix the cornmeal with the milk. Bring the water to the boil with the salt; add the cornmeal mixture, stirring, and let it boil and bubble for about 5 minutes, stirring as needed so it does not scorch. It will have a pasty consistency. Cover and steam on low or over boiling water for a few hours, or steam it in a microwave. When quite stiff and pulling away from the pan, remove and add the cheese, stirring until melted. Grease 6 or 8 compartments of a muffin pan and divide the mixture among them, pressing it down evenly with the back of a spoon. Chill for a few hours or overnight. Turn out and let sit a bit to take the chill off. Flour lightly, and sauté in a mixture of butter and oil until golden brown, turning once. You may keep them in a warm oven. Serve while hot.


Corn cakes apps         Corn cakes bacon

Friday, July 16, 2010

Pickin’ Time II: Blueberries

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                  Blueberry pie view

We have all been gathering, baking, and putting things by (preserving) to beat the band, as when the fruit is in, there truly is no tomorrow: it will be gone if you don’t use it now. So the Fourth was picking time not only for cherries, but for blueberries, those grown by my friend Linda’s husband Bob, also my source for striped bass.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Linda and Bob were out house-hunting when I went over to pick berries to make dessert for a barbecue at their house—excellent ribs and dogs, supplemented by my potato salad—to celebrate the Fourth. The  blueberry patch was neatly netted against the birds. And me, as it turned out: I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to get in. I was beginning to worry that I was in fact overeducated, and not the practical, competent, can-do sort of girl that I liked to think of myself as, when I figured out the simple and ingenious system Bob had rigged. It took me about 10 minutes of walking around, pulling on the netting, and testing the staples (immovable) to discover a cord, a sort of soft version of a Colonial door bar, strung across one side and knotted to nestle into eye-hooks. I undid that, but the opening it produced was too small; probably I could squeeze through, but surely 6’3” Bob could not get in this? Hunting more, I found a piece of molding down lower that fitted into nails on either side and lifted easily away and up, giving access. Blueberry pie Linda and Bob

With the castle breached, I faced another problem: there seemed to be very few ripe berries. Had they just picked the night before, I wondered? Whatever the reason, I  thought I’d be lucky to get a cup or at best two—not enough for a pie, I thought, but perhaps I could forage enough for a simple cobbler. Pushing on down the rows, it was not until I went around to the other side—the shady side that blueberries prefer, I later learned--that I found one bush that was just bursting with blue. I began to pick, discovering something I had quite forgotten: blueberry picking is back-breaking work. You have to lean over, and delve deep into the bushes in that crooked pose. But my labor was rewarded with a generous bowlful of perfectly ripe (I picked only the most uniformly blue) fruit. Yes, enough for a pie.

Blueberry Pie

Bob’s blueberries this year were delicious, juicy and spicy as they should be. Serves 6-8.


9” pie plateBlueberry pie ready
Pastry for 2-crust pie, divided in two: my recipe for pastry for fruit pies is here. It’s been unusually muggy in LC; use less water if it’s muggy where you are too; start with 3 T and work your way up as needed.

5 cups blueberries, picked over but not washed
Scant (about 7/8) cup sugar
½ tea mixed cardamom and cinnamon, a little more to taste but don’t overdo
1 tea freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T flour
2 T cornstarch
Pinch salt
2 T unsalted butter, melted

Heat the oven to 375 F.

Roll out half the pastry into a circle of about 13” and fit it into the pie plate, smoothing it along the bottom and leaving any overhang. Put in the refrigerator to cool.

Prepare the filling by gently folding the sugar, spice, salt, lemon juice, and starches into the berries using your hand. Add the melted butter and toss lightly, with your hand.

Roll the remaining pastry out to 12” and, using your eye to judge or a ruler, cut it into 1” strips with a very sharp knife or pastry wheel. Scrape the filling gently into the pan, evening it out. Weave a lattice over the filling with the strips. Trim the bottom and top pastry strips as needed to within 1” the rim of the pan; turn both under together, and flute to seal. You can use any left-over scraps to cut decorations if you want.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until the juices bubble up and the crust is golden. If the crust begins to darken too much before the pie is done, protect it with a pie protector or a few strips of foil loosely curved around the pan.

Let cool completely before cutting. Serve with vanilla ice cream.


Blueberry pie      Blueberry pie 2 

                                       OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pickin’ Time I: Sour Cherries


 Sour cherry tree can           Sour cherry tree branch

I got a call around 8:00 on the Fourth of July. It was Dick Hart, the fruit lady’s husband, asking if I wanted to come pick cherries. In my sour-cherry-obsessed world, this is what is known as a rhetorical question (of course I want to pick!). He told me that he and his wife had picked about 8 quarts the night before, pitted, and frozen them. Best to get them before the birds carried them all away (he hadn’t put up a net this year). Why didn’t I come over around 9:30? Whatever you say.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         An already perfect Fourth had become more perfect still. Arriving at the farm, we had the usual discussion on the treacherous subject of how much I wanted. I had learned well that underbidding was safest. A quart was expected, three would be seen as pushy. Would two quarts be all right? As it turned out, yes and then some. While dropping my pickings into my can on a string, Dick brought me some quart baskets, and encouraged me to pile them high. I ended up with about 5 pounds, or two and half quarts, plus an overflowing cup of currants, for $13.00.

An embarrassment of riches is its own kind of quandary. What to make? It was hot, hot, hot, not the best day for preserving, but I would have to be a fool not to make my favorite sour cherry preserves, which sustain me through the winter with not only memories of summer in Little Compton but also a taste pleasure, spooned over good vanilla ice cream, that is a kind of happiness. They took forever to gel in that relentless humidity, but they eventually did, and they are wonderful. I also decided to make the other sour-cherry preserve that I really like to have on hand, some pickled sweet-sour cherries; they are marinating away as we speak, the vinegar having been poured off and bottled. I had been fortunate enough to have  had a goodly share of cherry pie, thanks primarily to Anne, over several days, so thought I’d do something different. I settled on a sour cherry upside-down cake, a kind of experiment. It came out pretty well.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That about did it for my pickings. But when I was leaving the Hart Farm that day, Mr. Hart suggested that there might be more—that they would see how they went after he and his wife and some other unnamed person got some, and that we might divide up what remained. When the call comes, I’ll be ready.


Sour Cherry Upside-Down Cake

Upside-down cake is best served while it is still warm from the oven. It can be reheated briefly in the microwave if there is any left over. You can, of course, make this with almost any other fruit. Serves 9 (squares) or 8 (wedges).

For the caramel layerSour cherry tree pan

3 T unsalted butter
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
¼ tea cardamom

Generous pint of pitted sour cherries

For the cake

4 T lard
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tea vanilla
1 ½ cups a-p flour
1 ½ tea baking powder
¼ tea salt
½ cup buttermilkSour cherry tree cake

Heavy cream or ice cream for serving


Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Lightly spray an 8” square or 9” cake pan with Pam. Place the 3 T butter, the brown sugar, and the cardamom in the pan on the stove. Melt, stirring together, until the mixture just bubbles. Remove from the heat. While it cools, make the cake batter.

Cream the butter, lard, and sugar; beat in the eggs and vanilla with a wooden spoon. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt, and add to the creamed mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and stirring until just combined.

Arrange the cherries, pitted side up (good side down) very close together on the caramel (it may be firm—that is OK). If you use a square pan, arrange them all around the outside edges, then work your way into the center in smaller squares; if you use a round pan, arrange them in concentric circles.

Scrape the batter over the cherries, smoothing it gently and evenly into the corners and along the surface. Bake for about 45 minutes. It will be golden brown; the sides will begin to pull away from the pan; and the center will spring back to your touch. Remove and cool on a rack for 15-20 minutes.

Cover the pan with a platter or plate larger than pan and, grasping both firmly with potholders or a towel, turn over quickly and confidently. Serve immediately with good, unhomogenized heavy cream poured over, or with vanilla ice cream.


Sour cherry tree baked       Sour cherry tree served

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Frying: Frittered Feast


Fried Feat cheese puffsOne of the things that people either love or hate about me is that I am a person of strong convictions. I have principles that underlie my judging and deciding, and that guide me in all things. Food is no exception. And really, what could be more subject to nuanced judgment than the question of what is the proper thing to eat? To serve?

A principle that I live by, and that has been adopted by and become somewhat of a joke among my friends, is that “you must have something fried” in order to call an eating occasion a party. Otherwise it’s just supper, or a few friends over. A cocktail party must have one or two items (out of 6 or 8) that are deep-fried. A large dinner party—let’s say, 10 or more—must have something fried: appetizer, main course, side, dessert—your choice. For some paradoxical reason, the most simple, down-home of all cooking methods is also one of the most special and even elegant. Frying is festive, and can be, culinarily speaking, low- or high-brow.

Now, an entire fried meal is something else altogether. It is pure indulgence. It is sublime excess. It is summer on a plate. And as we all know, this is high summer.

So the other night we fried. The impetus began with a lament about the general inability to get good onion rings anymore; apparently, it is too much trouble for most so-called restaurants to cut up a few onions, dip them in a simple batter, and lower them into a fryer. There are estimable old-time hold-outs, including the Common Lunch in Little Compton, Nooley’s in Nashville, Pal’s Cabin in West Orange, NJ, among my own haunts. I’m sure, and fervently hope, you have yours. But what is really galling here in New England is the disappearance of real onion rings (and real French fries) at the fried fish shacks, the so-called temples of fried food. I’ll name names. Evelyn’s. Flo’s. Aunt Carries. Champlin’s. Etc. They’re frying the fish and shellfish, and doing a very good job with it. But putting that pristine, golden-encrusted fish or clams next to a sorry frozen fry or ring defies logic. It’s sacrilege. It’s self-destructive. I don’t go anymore.Fried feast pies

OK, back to the meal. We had little golden puffs of cheese to start. Sea scallops caught 30 or 40 miles off the coast of New Bedford. And the raison d'être, onion rings. Accompanied by homemade tartar sauce, malt vinegar (this is New England, after all), lemon, ketchup. Cole slaw prepared by my friend Mary, and apricot and sour cherry pies prepared by Anne. It was incredibly windy, so we ate inside. Ideally, fried food of the low sort, of which this was, should be eaten outside. But you can’t always have everything.

Frying is easy, if a bit messy when you do it for a crowd. Its key is fat at the correct temperature, first and foremost. This ensures the golden, crisp seal to the tender, moist but fully cooked interior of whatever you are making. Most items are fried at a temperature of 350-375 F. Batters or breadings are simple—as simple as plain flour if you want. Salt as the food comes out of the fryer, unless you are holding it briefly in a warm oven (which you can if you must), in which case I recommend salting right before serving.

You can fry without a thermometer, learning to judge the fat temperature through various tests like frying a cube of bread til golden in one minute, or visually recognizing the shimmer of heat at certain temperatures before it smokes, or using the palm of your hand to estimate as you would an oven or grill. This is what I had to do for the cheese puffs and scallops, sliding the pan around to control the temperature, as I forgot to bring my thermometer with me to Little Compton. But a thermometer is more reliable, and safer. I recently gave my incomparable Betty-G Cooker-Fryer away for the White Elephant table at the local church fair. The Betty-G, essentially a large pot with a big basket insert and a thermostat—was basic and functional. But it was bulky, and I was moving, and no longer had room for it. A pity, as I had it for 33 years and it had been a loyal workhorse, especially considering that I paid perhaps $15 for it. But the parting of me and my Betty-G allows me to drive home the point that you can fry in anything: a deep cast iron frying pan, a stainless steel or aluminum saucepan, or a Dutch oven on the stove are all fine, provided your pan is heavy, has high sides, is securely flat-bottomed, and well-balanced. Also serviceable is a deep chicken fryer, both the electric kind with a thermostat and the kind that sits on the stove. You don’t need a basket, just a nice sturdy long-handled slotted spoon or Chinese wire skimmer. Most fryers for the home these days are overpriced contraptions with small capacities, and I would not bother with them.

What type of oil? It depends on what you are making, how much you feel like splurging (spending more is often economical in its own way), and how you feel about animal fats. I happen to like them. So: Chinese food is usually fried in peanut oil, which is generally considered a good all-purpose frying oil, if an expensive one, because of its relatively high smoking point, but which I tend to use primarily for Chinese. For doughnuts and dessert fritters with fruit I like lard. For fries with freshly dug potatoes, olive oil or fat from a goose or duck or beef, often combined with some other vegetable oil. For other vegetables (e.g., squash blossoms or zucchini or onions), vegetable oil such as corn or canola, or olive oil or a combination. For fish, a clean-tasting light vegetable oil or corn oil. For Mexican things, corn oil or lard. We cooked the onion rings and scallops in corn oil and the cheese fritters in a combination of olive and corn oil.

Depending on what you are cooking, you will need 4-6” of oil; the volume of oil you will need will depend on the diameter of your frying vessel, but I recommend having a gallon or two on hand during frying season to accommodate all needs, and that you never fry with less than about 5 cups of oil. (Unless, of course, like me, you are doing small-batch appetizer frying for one in a little heavy 1-qt saucepan, which I do pretty often; don’t hesitate to fry yourself up two or three wonton.) For onion rings, small appetizers like the cheese puffs, most vegetables including fries, shrimp and small scallops, 4” is enough, sometimes 3” for little, lightweight things. More depth is needed for whole pieces of chicken or other heavier, dense items. Leave a minimum of 3” of head space for displacement, more for heavier items or large capacities. Do not overcrowd the pan, both for safety and for proper frying. Too much in the pan will lower the temperature dramatically, increasing absorption of fat and cooking time, which will make your food soggy. Turn the food with your skimmer or a long-handled fork or curved spatula to ensure an even, golden crust.

Another key to successful frying, besides temperature and the right amount of food in the right amount of oil, is organization. Prep the food to be cooked according to directions, paying particular attention to consistent size. Lay out the sequence in which you will do things in advance. For example, if the recipe calls for flouring, egg wash, then breading, have these three things set up in a row, the flour and breading on wax paper or in bags, the wash between them in a dish or bowl. On the far right, closest but not too close to the fryer, your layers of paper towels for draining. If you are putting things into a warm oven for holding, you can put the towels on a sheet pan; for delicate things, I put them on a rack in the pan. If you are serving a very casual meal, passing food as it comes out of the fryer, have your plate or platter at hand, covered with a napkin, to which it can be immediately transferred after the first quick draining and salting.

With frying as with lots of cooking, safety is a matter of preparedness and prudence. When frying on the stove, place the pan on a back burner and be sure the pan size fully covers the burner it sits on. When frying outside, place your fryer well away from a traffic area; always keep the kids and clueless adults out of the kitchen or away from where you are working. Keep a large lid handy (or a cookie sheet), and if you ever have a flare-up, put the lid on the fryer and carefully slide the pot to another area of the stove until it subsides. Never pour water on a grease fire. Smother it or, if it gets out of hand, use your kitchen fire extinguisher (you do have one, right?). But if you are careful and follow the safety rules, you will have no problem. I never cover a fryer while the food is cooking. Some say it helps control the temperature or is safer. I say it reduces crispness and that safety is as safety does. If you use a heavy, well-balanced pan; don’t overfill your pan; watch the temperature; lower food in gently to prevent splashing; have a lid nearby; use a sturdy long handled slotted spoon or skimmer; use a flexible small pot holder, like silicone, or small folded towel to handle the pot (don’t let anything drag), you will be fine.

The weather is lovely for this Fourth of July. Frying outdoors is the fat-lover’s version of grilling. How about some onion rings with those burgers and dogs?

Onion Rings Three Ways

These three methods build on each other to produce excellent versions, from very delicate to heavier coating, of crisp, shattery, battered onion rings. Try them all and see which you prefer. If you can decide. Method 3 is my all-purpose frying batter, sometimes with the addition of cornmeal, but I am marginally inclined toward one of the others for rings. Directions are general and will serve about 4 as a side dish or appetizer. Adjust according to the number of people you are serving.

2 very large Spanish onions, peeled and sliced into ½” slices. Slice thicker if you like, or a little thinner, but not too thin. Have extra onions on hand.

Vegetable oil of your choice, heated to about 365 F.

Method 1

1 quart buttermilk
¼ tea Tabasco, or to taste
¼ tea salt

1 cup bread or all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
½ tea baking powder (optional)
½ tea salt

Mix the buttermilk, Tabasco, and salt; submerge the onions, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours. Mix the flour, cornstarch, and salt. Remove the rings from the buttermilk and dredge in the flour mixture. Fry until golden. Salt.

Method 2

The above flour mixture
12 oz lager or club soda, approximately
Freshly ground pepper (optional)

Stir the beer or club soda into the flour mixture until it is the consistency of a thin wallpaper paste (not real appetizing, but that’s how I would describe it). Set aside for 15 minutes or so. Dip the onions in the batter until well-coated. Fry until golden. Salt.

Method 3

The above simple beer batter (method 2)
1 egg, separated

Stir the egg yolk into the beer batter. In a small bowl, beat the egg white to soft, shiny peaks—stiff but not dry. Fold gently into the batter. Dip the onions in the batter until well-coated. Fry until golden. Salt.