Thursday, July 25, 2013

C3: Corn to the Third Power

I’m a eating a hot meal for the first time in almost two weeks—at least, the first time cooked in my own cottage kitchen, which has been an oven in and of itself.  It’s gone from HHH—the abbreviation every New Englander knows, Hazy, Hot, and Humid—to TDCWFJ—that’s my own abbreviation for too damned cold and wet for July. Of course, it’s only one day, and I do not expect—are you listening, weather gods?—it to last. But I am already wishing for the heat back. Except for the fact that I was able to turn the real oven on today.

I would like to report that I was baking a cherry pie with, finally, the Montmorencies. But I totally missed them. For the first time in…well, forever!  It was that perfect storm of not being here on the ONE day when they were picked. But I don’t think I really missed much. The fruit lady said they were fermented. Cherry wine, anyone?  They had never seen it before.  Waited and waited to pick them because they were not ready, and then when they were…they were already gone. A strange year.

But the blueberries are in. And you can be sure there is a pie in our future.  But for today, in the cold, when I have on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt for god’s sake, and just pulled out a pair of socks, I kid you not (note that I have them with me: it’s New England, after all), I turned to the comfort of corn.

While I’m still waiting for my favorite varieties, Temptation and Lancelot, to appear, the corn is good, and this was a variety I have never seen at Walker’s or really anywhere before, Illini. I bought a few ears, and was planning to cut it off the cob (which I did) and sauté it (which I didn’t), but ended up going out with a friend and having—gasp—a bowl of cut corn more than an hour old. That’s tantamount to sin in Yankee religion.

So I decided to make some cornbread. Even though I am, thanks to the wonderful Rachel of the equally wonderful and evocative Lawn Tea blog, an honorary G.R.I.T.S. member (and let us never forget that I did serve three years hard time in Nashville), I rarely make cornbread.  I don’t like the dry, crumbly sort,  the kind that you can slather to death with butter and still choke on on the way down. I imagine it’s really good for stuffing a bird, able to suck up all those juices without totally falling apart. But then, I don’t stuff my birds—we do dressing, baked on the side.  And I don’t like the sweet sort, the yellow, sugary stuff that is the staple of middling restaurants. I don’t like the over-stuffed sort, much as I don’t like pizza with tons of toppings, or ice cream with, god forbid, candy and cookies and nuts and swirls and…please stop!  Hold the chiles, the cheese, the bacon: don’t you know that cornbread, like pizza and ice cream, should be pure?

I am no corn bread maven. But a lot of corn, in its various forms, makes for a good corn bread. Hence the name.  Since I don’t like it dry, I make it moist. And since I don’t like it sweet, I make it…just sweet enough to balance the acid edge.  It can be eaten plain, without butter (enough fat in it). It stands on its own for breakfast. And that, for me, is the ultimate test.

C3 Cornbread

This will sit nicely on the counter for a few days with little damage. What more could you want? As with all moist foods, the microwave at low temp does a nice job of reheating, but it scarcely needs it.  The yellow cornflour gives a  yellow color when you use white cornmeal; white cornflour can also be used. Serves 12 generously.

2 c a-p flour
½ c stoneground yellow cornflour (I use Bob’s Red Mill, or a noname white version from the supermarkets          here)
1 c stoneground white or yellow cornmeal (I use RI jonnycakemeal)
2 tea baking powder
1 tea baking soda
1 tea salt
3 T brown sugar
2 T pure maple syrup
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), melted
2 large brown eggs
¾ best sour cream
1 cup whole milk
Cut kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn (about 1 cup)
Additional maple syrup for brushing top (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 13x9” baking pan, preferably a nice one for serving, and set aside.

Mix the flours, cornmeal, baking powder, soda, and salt together in a large bowl. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the melted butter, cooled a little, with the sugar and syrup. Whisk in the eggs, then the sour cream, then the milk. Fold into the dry ingredients just until the flour disappears, as for a biscuit. Fold in the corn kernels, which you have cut off and scraped a little from their cobs (freezing the cobs for corn stock), until just distributed. Scoop into the prepared pan, and spread around with the back of a wooden spoon.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, depending on your oven (mine in LC is HOT!), until lightly browned all over, a little more so on the edges, which may just begin to pull away. The top should spring back to the touch, and you can always stick a skewer in to make sure it is cooked through.  Remove to a rack to cool, and brush lightly with maple syrup if you wish.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Miraculous Mint: Always in Style

It is hard to believe that, not so long ago, just about every recipe called for dried herbs. It was unheard of to see fresh versions of even the most commonly used herbs—basil, oregano, sage, thyme—in the stores. “Exotics” like tarragon were unheard of period until the late 70s or, in many locales, the 80s.
But mint, fresh and fragrant, was somehow always there.  In the lemonade and the iced tea. Fresh.

I am guessing that this rare example of herbal freshness is because mint was practically a weed: it was just there. It grew everywhere, and “took over”:  most people pretty much considered it a pest, and would dig it out save for a tiny bit for, you know, the lemonade.  I could not understand this. I loved its looks, its feel between the fingers, its scent of course, the amazing fact that you could just pick and chew on the leaves, and they were minty great. I loved the way it took over.

In a paradoxical reversal, mint is actually now hard to find. Yup, it’s been dug up.  If you do see it in the store—rarely—it is a sad flattened little bunch stifled and browning in a plastic tray. Why is it that we can now have big bunches of cilantro, basil, Italian parsley, and bushy gatherings of rosemary on a regular basis, but not mint?  I am guessing that it is something that doesn’t really take to greenhouse cultivation. It wants to be wild—run rampant. Most farming doesn't work like that these days.

So if you want it, you need to have your own taking over the backyard, or live by a local farmer.  Sometimes you see it in international markets. But I know you know what I mean when I say that making tabbouleh or anything else that calls for a good load of mint can be a challenge.

Coll grows it, and is generous with it, as he is with his other bunches of herbs (many herb prices in stores are, in a word, ridiculous). The beetles have, apparently, been at it these past days, so when I arrived at the stand there was none out for sale. I really wanted some, so one of the farm stand girls kindly went out and cut me some, picking through and harvesting the best un-eaten stems. I got enough, and paid a dollar for it.

Thinking about the ahead-of-its time abundance and present-time scarcity of mint quite naturally brought on a little food nostalgia.  This salad is a reminder of the virtues of an untidy summer lawn, shot through with marauding mint. Was there ever a more effortless and neglected gift to the suburban table?

Jellied Mint, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad

The mint “jello” is superb: try it. It would also make, on its own, a wonderful palate cleanser between courses or a light summer dessert with some ripe berries and cream. Serves 3-4.

The jelly

1 big bunch of freshly picked mint, enough to for 1 cup loosely packed chopped mint; reserve some nice leaves for garnish
2 packages plain gelatin (and a little cold water to soften it)
2 cups boiling water
2 T sugar
1 tea freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ tea salt
¼ cup mild vinegar (cider, white, or white wine)
¼ cup white wine (or use a ½ cup vinegar)

In a 1-qt saucepan, put the gelatin and add just enough cold water to soften it; let it sit about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, stem the mint, stack the leaves, and roughly slice/chop it. You will need about 1 cup, loosely packed.

Add the boiling water, sugar, maple syrup, salt, lemon juice, vinegar, and wine (if using) to the pan; keep it warm over medium-low heat. Add the fresh mint, stir, and let it sit on the heat for 20 minutes or so, stirring and tasting it occasionally. Add a little more sugar if needed. It will taste a little acid at the beginning, but will mellow as it steeps.

Strain the mixture into a big measuring cup and discard the leaves. Rinse a 9” or 10” pie plate with cold water.  Pour the liquid into the pie plate and refrigerate until set.


Use any sweetish dressing you like. I used:

1 T finely minced sweet onion
¼ c olive oil (would have used vegetable oil, but had none)
2 T cider vinegar
¼ tea salt
1/8 tea black pepper
1 ½ T thick local heavy cream

Whisk all together until thick.

To assemble the salad

The mint jello
1 medium nice local tomato
1 medium cucumber
The dressing
Mint leaves

Core and seed the tomato and the cucumber and chop them into large dice. Turn the jelly out onto a board and dice it; if you have trouble turning it out, cut the jelly into squares with a sharp knife in the pan, and remove them with a spoon. Arrange the jello and vegetables on a plate. Nap with a little whipped cream dressing and garnish with mint before serving; if you can, set the salad in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to chill.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Slowly, Sour Cherries

Everything, not just the corn, is a little behind this year. In some ways, that’s been good. The lettuce, always sensational early summer but usually starting to lose its cool-weather cool by early July, is having an amazing run. We’re talking perfect heads of Boston lettuce 15” in diameter. Now that’s what I call salad days.

Many of the berries are not faring so well. The fruit lady is having a bad season so far. She lost all her blackberry plants—total death—in the winter storms. One of the spring storms—the wind, mostly—flattened her raspberries and the crop has been sparse (although when she’s managed to pick some, they’ve been good). She is hopeful about the blueberries: they are not ready yet, but she tastes them as they grow and she thinks they are going to be good. The Montmorency cherries are not ready either—those prized and fleeting gems I wait for each year, sometimes picking my own at the fruit lady’s farm so as not to miss them—but some of the newer varieties, like the Balatons, are coming in. While I consider them on a par with, say, skim milk compared to whole, they will do in a pinch.

So I got some cherries from Young Farm last week because I was charged with bringing dessert to a friend’s house for dinner, and I wanted to bring a pie. When I started making it, I could see they were a little under-ripe, and they tasted a little “pale”—the best way to describe a cherry that has had too much rain and isn’t, well, a Montmorency. 

So the pie looks well enough, right? Well, as I said to my friends when I carried it in and everyone started exclaiming, “is that a sour cherry pie?!” : don’t get too excited. I knew it wasn’t going to be great, as in, well, Montmorency great.  So I made the crust extra-good (by that, I mean I did a high butter/lard to flour ratio). And I made a back-up dessert. I had some blueberries from New Jersey—and I can tell you, New Jersey blueberries are a very good substitute when local ones are not in—and had bought some currants from the fruit lady, which were nice. I made a little blueberry and currant crisp, and brought some of the great local heavy cream for that, and some of Gray’s vanilla ice cream for the pie. Cream is a cook's cure-all.
Both were fine, and as expected. I await the call from the fruit lady’s husband, telling me the Montmorencies from their 80+ year old tree are in.  And then, we’ll have my idea of a pie.
Sour Cherry Pie

The recipe is here, in a 2007 post. If your cherries are not perfectly ripe, you can do what I did: up your fat to flour ratio; add a little more lemon and a little maple syrup (compensating for the added liquid with a bit more cornstarch); add some spice, such as cardamom, which I generally prefer not to put in cherry pie when cherries are great because I like it pure. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Back in LC: Green, and Green Beans

I arrived in Little Compton late Wednesday, after a series of travel setbacks, but in time for the Fourth. I brought the sun and the warmth and blue skies with me from Arizona, as I promised I would. Everyone is grateful, and I was happy to oblige.  Who knew I had such power.

The fact that everyone was begging for sun and warmth, however, tells you what it has been like here. In a word, raining.  And in another word, cool.  In addition to being a total drag after a brutal winter and miserable spring, it has been quite difficult for the farmers.  I can only imagine the stress as we approached the fourth, and they had no corn: it’s like having to tell a bunch of kids on Christmas that there will be no presents. At least, that’s how it is here. We’ve been known to eat corn as a main course.

Coll Walker had no corn (we looked for the corn flag, a sign of victory if there ever was one, in vain—the second time in history that there was, yikes, no corn on the 4th), but he did have beautiful slim beans, bushy basil, and truly giant lettuces (there’s always someone who thrives on the chilly weather). Young Farm, however, managed to pick a small amount of corn, and I snagged a few ears. I can be a creature of habit on holidays, but decided to forgo the potato salad in honor of these determined vegetables. Corn and beans are starchy sisters.

And I made a home version of the Newport Creamery burger—a relatively thin burger, grilled, and immediately placed between two buttered pieces of lightly toasted white bread, with tomato (also Coll’s) and lettuce, mayo and ketchup, and a generous amount of salt and paper. The toast absorbs some of the burger juices, and it is all very tasty; toast should be very light (lighter than in the photo) so the bread won't break on cutting. Times have changed—Newport Creamery used to make all their burgers this way—but thankfully, still have one on the menu.

Everything here in Rhode Island is so green, in stark contrast to the desert I just left. The air smells of grass and the sea, and the humidity (100% a few days ago!) was a welcome wave over my parched skin when I first landed. But I am settling back in, I guess: it's getting a little too humid even for me. Off to the beach!

Summer Veggies with Sour Cream

Long before recycling, waste not, want not New Englanders put sour dairy products to good use. We love our sour milk and sour cream, and of course, our buttermilk. All contribute to tender and tangy baking products. But sour cream, like plain heavy cream, does amazing quick duty as a sauce—for noodles and meats, and also for vegetables. This is a very New England side dish. Adjust according to whatever quantities you have on hand. Serves 2.
½ lb fresh new green beans
2 ears fresh-picked corn, shucked
1 T unsalted butter
2-3 T sour cream
1 large scallion, white and green parts, sliced
2-3 big leaves fresh basil, chiffonade

Break the stem ends from the beans and cut the corn off the cob with a sharp knife. Bring a pot of water to the boil; drop in the beans and a little salt, and cook for about 3 minutes; add the corn and cook for another minute. Drain.

Melt the butter in a sauté pan and add the beans and corn, tossing to coat and heat through. Add the scallions and toss for a minute or so over low heat—don’t brown anything. Add the sour cream, salt, and pepper, and stir for another minute or so. Add the basil, toss once more, and taste for seasoning. Remove from the heat and serve immediately. If you make it a little ahead, add up to another T of sour cream when reheating. You could add some chopped tomato if you wish.