Foodie Tuesday: Does this Seem Corny to You?

photoMy big sister hates corn. Things made with cornflour or cornmeal are acceptable, but sweet corn in all of its forms disgusts her delicate palate. While I, too, in my sisterly fashion may have disgusted her delicate sensibilities from time to time, I do not blame it on my admiration for corn in nearly all of its edible forms. (Surely my two younger sisters have had equally ample opportunity to be mortified by me over the years, despite their sharing my appreciation for corn.) But I do love corn. Perhaps I am just a corny person.

photoIt’s a little surprising that I find the texture appealing, given that among the very few foods I don’t enjoy are berries or fruits that have an arguably similar texture, with tight skins that burst open to soft insides, but there it is, I’ve never claimed to be logical. It could also be argued that corn has little flavor, being fairly bland if sometimes quite sweet, but this is of course one of its attributes that I particularly like. After all, I am very fond of foods that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways and many sorts of dishes or meals. Corn is exceedingly versatile in this sense, able to be incorporated in both sweet and savory dishes without competing with other ingredients, and capable of being processed in a huge range of ways to create yet more uses for it. You can dry it, soak it, pound it, puree it, pop it, use it as a whole kernel or even a whole cob, roast or fry or boil or steam it. It’s hard to think of many ways you can’t use corn.

Still, I’ll admit that my favorite treatments for it are usually the simplest. A garden-plucked ear of sweet corn is so delicious that I will not only eschew my normal craving for twenty pounds of butter per meal and eat it plain when it’s so fresh, I will happily gnaw it uncooked from the cob in that state. I’ve probably mentioned here before that when I was young and Gramps had his garden in its grand proliferation, there was that harvest time of year when the greatest treat was to have a meal of nothing but corn straight from the patch.

photoI also love kernel corn, hot and buttered, and newly baked cornbread. Mom used to make corn cakes on the griddle for an occasional breakfast, and despite my preference for my pancakes to be thin and moist, I happily made exception for those corn cakes’ thicker and cakier character because their toasted cornmeal flavor and sweetness made them much more like slim slices of cornbread or even a piece of celebratory cake than like any typical pancakes. Come to think of it, they would be a perfect dessert cake if made larger in circumference and stacked with some fabulous penuche or chocolate or cream cheese frosting between. Uh-oh. Dessert alarm is going off noisily in my head (stomach).

Corn clearly makes a wonderful and uncomplicated addition to all sorts of casseroles, soups and hot dishes as well in its cut-kernel form. It’s good to remember, though, that corn is also lovely cold. Added to salads, whether as a part of a mixed, dressed kind of salad or simply added to any combination of mixed greens that make up your favorite tossed salad, corn is a wonderful jot of sweetness and light color in the blend. I’m particularly a fan of corn added to salads of ingredients common to hot-weather climes: avocado, black beans, tomatoes, olives or capiscum pieces; citrus, mangoes or peaches can add a dash of brightness; dry, salty cheeses grated in, cilantro or mint or basil snipped on, and sweet or savory spices sprinkled over the dishes can all help to customize the dish, and corn is friendly with all of them.photoAnd me, I’m pretty friendly with nearly anything that has corn in, on or with it.

Foodie Tuesday: Ruminations

Chew on this: vegetables, especially raw vegetables, make for great relief from the heavier stuff in a meal. I’m not fond of some vegetables raw, and I know I’m far from alone in this, but most of the ones that are mild, sweet and/or snappingly crunchy are a pleasure and a refreshment in mid-meal. Their textural and flavorful contrast with the rest of the dishes are a delectable addition to the repast, and the big bonus is, of course, that many vegetables are, gasp!, actually pretty good for me.

Add some fruit and you have yet more opportunities for variety and full, fanciful flavors, a slew of great, vibrant colors, freshness and coolness, more vitamins and other such great stuff. Whatever you do, it doesn’t have to be complicated; in fact, it’s often best to leave things uncomplicated. Just enjoy the simple foods. Chomp, chomp. Yummy.

Here are a couple of suggestions, in case you should be looking for some such lively refreshment to add to your meal. You’re welcome.photoCarrot-Apple Slaw

Shred together raw carrots and an equal amount of sweet apples like a Honeycrisp, Gala, Braeburn or Fuji. Mince up some candied ginger and candied mandarin peel. Dress the mix with lemon juice and honey. Toss in a goodly sprinkle each of brown mustard seeds and black sesame seeds. Since I served this with an Indian dinner, I suppose the sesame seeds could well have been ‘black cumin’ or ‘onion seeds’–those Nigella sativa seeds often used as seasoning in delicious Indian foods. But golly, the sesame seeds were just fine and dandy. A snippet or two of fresh cilantro or mint might be a great addition as well. Aw, you already know that there are endless options, don’t you.photoWhere’s Waldorf? Salad

I’ve always liked the celery-apple combination in good old Waldorf Salad. So why not a version with celery root, I ask you. Since celeriac is a little bit of a tough vegetable, I think the traditional Waldorf presentation would be a bit like an apple salad with small chunks of wood in it. So when I made this salad I shredded the peeled celeriac. Then it seemed like I was headed in a slaw-like direction (anybody sense a theme in my salads?), so I left the peel on the apple I added to this one, too. Besides, being shredded as well, the crisp Granny Smith apple brought some nice bright color. I kept this one monochromatic but went for good juicy flavors, using the juice and zest of half a lime, lots of honey, a little pinch of salt, and a dollop of mayonnaise. For a slightly more Waldorf-like touch but nice brighter color, instead of raisins I’d add (and might, with the second day’s batch of the salad) diced dried apricots. Celery leaf is a logical garnish, but lacking that, I used simple flat-leaf parsley for its similar look and strong, snappy

Foodie Tuesday: The Daily Grind Need Not Grind Us Down

When I did a bit of checking on it, the name of my variant of Shepherd’s Pie seemed to be, by rights, ‘Pastel de Carne y Patatas’–but you know me, I can’t stick to proprieties very well. So I named it the more mellifluous sounding ‘Pastel al Pastor’, thinking as I do that shepherds get very short shrift in this day and age and can use a little flattering attention. What the dish is calls for it anyway, for it’s a rustic Mexican-tinged take on the comfort-food standard Shepherd’s Pie. In any event, like many longtime popular recipes, it got its start partly by using ground or minced meat, a hallmark of well-fed poor people’s diets since the cheaper cuts of most meats can become tenderer and allow much more expansive fillers and the disguise of plenteous seasonings in order to be palatable while still being relatively affordable.

Rustic and comforting it may be, but the simplicity of the end result in this recipe belies the multifaceted process by which it’s made. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it can be made in large quantities and frozen in smaller batches between times, so it can easily become a quick-fix dish after the first preparation. Shepherd’s Pie, in the vernacular, derives from the longtime concept of Cottage Pie, which in turn originated when cooks began more widely using potatoes to stretch those more expensive ingredients of the meal, the meats. Typically, these pies (and there are versions of them in an enormous number of countries, cultures and cuisines) are simply meat dishes, often made with the ‘lesser’ cuts or a mixture of leftover meats, with a potato crust. Probably the most familiar of them here in the US is the minced meat (and often, vegetable) mixture topped with mashed potatoes that is served in many a British pub and home kitchen and that we co-opted in our own American ways.

Mine, on this occasion, was to veer as I often do toward Mexican seasonings and enjoy my own little twist on the dish.photoPastel al Pastor

Seasoned minced or ground meats, topped with vegetables and mushrooms and gravy and served over smashed potatoes make altogether a hearty and countrified dish, not at all difficult to make but taking a little bit of time because of its individual parts. I make this in a generously buttered baking dish both because it’s easier to clean afterward and because–you guessed it–I love butter.

The bottom layer of the dish is made by frying a mixture of equal parts ground beef, pork and lamb, seasoned freely with salt, black and cayenne peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika and lots of cumin. Those without supertaster spouses will likely want to add some garlic powder as well, though it’s not essential. A splash of rich chicken broth or a spoonful of good chicken bouillon adds a nice layer of flavor, if you have it. Next, add a heaping spoonful of tomato paste and enough good salsa to make the meat mixture very slightly saucy, and just as the meats begin to caramelize, you’re done. [My go-to, if I’m not making my salsa by hand, is Pace’s mild Chunky Salsa with a prepared chipotle en adobo blended in thoroughly–I see on their web page that they’re reintroducing their chipotle salsa, so that’s probably fine too.] Drain the fat from the meat mixture and spread it in the bottom of your baking dish.

While the meat’s cooking, you can be preparing the vegetable-mushroom layer. I mixed about equal amounts of small cut carrots, sliced celery and sliced brown mushrooms, covered them with some of my ubiquitous chicken broth and cooked them until tender. Then I pureed half of them with a stick blender, adding a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle en adobo (that’s about a half a pepper), unflavored gelatin and potato flour for flavor and texture, mixed that with the remaining vegetables, and poured it all over the meat. I topped this with a cup or so of frozen sweet kernel corn and got ready for Potato Happiness.

Today’s version of this meal, Ladies and Gentlemen, was potato-fied with leftovers. I had half a baked potato and about a cupful of good french fries in the fridge, and they worked wonderfully when warmed with some cream and a touch of salt and smashed roughly. It would have been just fine to do the typical Shepherd’s Pie treatment of spreading the potatoes over the meat-and-veg before heating the dish through in the oven, but since this was all concocted of things I had around (taco meat I’d made and frozen, salad vegetables and leftover potatoes), on this occasion we just put nice heaps of mash on our plates and spooned the rest over them like meat-and-vegetable gravy.

For the more normal approach, I’d roast, boil or bake potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and combine with cream for the mash and then top the casserole, possibly adding some nice cheese either on top before browning it in the oven (a mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack, for example) or as a fine garnish, a serving-time crumble (cotija on top, anyone?). But ‘normal’ is overrated, and the dish was mighty, mighty tasty even deconstructed in this way. And it’s still flexible–yes, even a dish concocted of multiple leftovers has variety left in it, my friends. Add some peas (so many tasty cottage pies have peas in them), cauliflower, green beans, or any number of other vegetables. Make it spicier. Soup it up into a stew, with potato pieces incorporated. Change the seasonings to Indian and make it a post-Colonial curried version. You get the drift.

Thing is, of course, that this is precisely how the dish was conceived: as a loose general structure into which any number of variables could successfully be introduced, depending upon what was on hand. Save time, save labor, save money. Eat delicious potatoes and whatever flavorful wonders you can afford and imagine to combine under them.

Well, get along with you now, you know how it works. And you can be pretty sure that it’s going to taste good. That’s how folklore ‘recipes’ survive–on flexibility and reliability. Oh, yeah, and great fillers.

Even chicken, which sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to minced meat dishes because it’s left too unseasoned or cooked in ways that make it too dry, can make lovely ground meat dishes with a little effort. In the latest instance, I chose to precook mine in a sort of meat loaf sous vide, keeping the juices and additions in and on it until it was fully plate-safe, but this could easily be chilled in its loaf form, sliced and pan-fried without the intervening hot bath, I’m sure. And a food processor makes the loaf prep a snap, but it can be done with a knife and a pair of hands for mixing, too. In any event, I veered more toward Italy this time with my glorified chicken meatloaf concoction.photoCotolette di Pollo e Pancetta

[About 6 servings.] Mince and mix together the following and shape into a compact loaf: 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (dark meat stays moister), 3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon powdered lemon peel, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons cold butter and 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shallot. Wrap and chill the loaf until ready to fry it, or do as I did: vacuum pack it, cook it sous vide like a confit (low and slow–I let it go overnight), and then refrigerate until ready to use.

When it’s time to fix the meal, cut the loaf into slices about 1/4 inch thick and fry them over medium heat until lightly browned. With a well seasoned iron skillet or a nonstick pan, the butter in the loaf is quite sufficient to keep the slices from sticking, and they get a nice little lightly crispy crust outside their tender middles. I served mine with slices of fried cheese (any slow-melting mild cheese would do for this after-the-fact application, or you can top the meat slices with faster-melting sorts like mozzarella or provolone as the meat cooks) and a simple sauce cooked down from jarred passata (simple tomato puree–I like the Mutti brand passata I used, pure tomatoes with a little salt) mixed with the loaf’s excess juices, salt and pepper and oregano to taste. On the side, little ramekins of rice and buttered green beans are plenty, though of course there’s always room for invention on the plate. The whole assembly, since I’d put up both cooked rice and the confited loaf in the refrigerator beforehand, took not more than fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare.

¡Buen provecho! Buon appetito! Now, stop mincing around and get eating!

Foodie Tuesday: In a Froth over Broth

How do I love broth? Let me count the ways.

photoSo versatile and so flexible an ingredient, it’s surprising that broth should be so UN-intimidating, so simple to concoct once you get the hang of it. After all, it’s water and flavorings simmered together for a nice long party in the hot tub, nothing more really. I’m extraordinarily simplistic when it comes to broth: if it ain’t easy to brew and full of tasty smooth liquid-gold goodness when it’s done, it ain’t gettin’ made in my kitchen. It ought to have a nice dose of nutrients beaming out of its depths as well, but I’m not getting any meters and test strips and laboratory lunacy involved to prove my point; if the ease is easy enough and the soup is slurpy enough, my litmus test is satisfied.

Every time I slide the old slow cooker off its shelf and out to start the party going, I clutch at my heart to still the palpitations of happy-tude. Because somewhere along the line, this kitchen commitment-phobe who dreaded attempting to prepare anything that looked complicated and fussy and mysterious discovered that while a good broth may require a certain amount of attention and a couple of brief periods of semi-assiduous activity over a couple of days (!), it doesn’t have to be scary and impossible, even for me. And hooray, it doesn’t have to follow a persnickety recipe full of esoteric ingredients either.

Good soup-secret factoids I’ve learned:

1 – Don’t think too hard. The more I muck about with a Plan in the kitchen for anything, the more I tend to want to give up.

2 – Use good ingredients. Don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t be willing to eat as nearly unadulterated on its own as is safe or any booze or juice you wouldn’t be caught drinking on purpose. That age-old wisdom is handed down from the earliest generations of cooks precisely because it’s True and it works.

3 – Choose tools that work the way you want them to and keep the techniques as uncomplicated as possible. Good broth can be made without much real skill, I’ve learned, so don’t go and make it more daunting than necessary.

4 – Let the ingredients, tools and time do the work for you as much as possible.

I use a Crock-Pot®, because it’s the slow cooker I happen to have and I like it. I’ve had it for about a decade and it puts up with all of my kitchen monkeyshines without breaking a sweat. Okay, that’s a complete fib: slow cookers tend to “sweat” profusely inside; it’s part of what they’re designed to do. Mine has a see-through (except for that condensation) glass lid and a removable stoneware lining that lets me soak all of the evidence away after whatever I’ve wrought in my cooking frenzies.

The rest of my broth-making arsenal is basic as can be. My 10×14″ Pyrex® casserole baking dish (not seen here–it was in use elsewhere during today’s modeling photo-shoot) to put bones and/or vegetables in for roasting before the big simmer starts. Tongs and a sturdy spoon for tending and fishing around in the broth contents once in a while if needed, and a sturdy cooking spider (this 6″ diameter baby works great for my purposes). Our old pasta strainer cook pot, lined with a flour sack dish towel, is the perfect way to finish the broth straining once the cookery is done.

photoThe ingredients of my broth parties are variable. A basic vegetable broth from my kitchen is likely to be nothing more complex than the classic aromatic combination of carrots, celery and onion, with seasonings dictated by my mood and the intended uses of the broth (mmmm, shall I go southeast Asian this time? Head for something more Spanish and gently tuck in some saffron at the end? Throw in some fruit?).

Seafood broth starts with the same aromatics and gets whatever shellfish parts–yay, I get to say exoskeletons, because it’s correct and such a cool word!–I can get my paws on thrown in along with the available vegetal treats. I’m not entirely open-minded when it comes to the veg that gets added to broth blends, because there are some (cruciferous culprits, I’m looking at YOU, for example) that will take over the pot the minute they get a chance and you won’t taste anything else. No matter how much I like broccoli, I’m saving it for Cream of Broccoli soup where it can show off all it wants without being a pest, but otherwise I’m a segregationist lest there be a liquid coup d’état.

Roasting almost anything before simmering it in liquids, thanks to the ethereal effects of caramelization or Maillard reaction, is a great way to enrich and intensify the flavors of the brew, so if there’s time to do a medium-heat roast beforehand, it’s always a dandy addition. And since that process is so ridiculously simple, it’s one there’s no reason to avoid.

How I roast this stuff: scatter coarse chunks of tasty ingredients in a big flat pan (the aforementioned Pyrex, in my house), season them with a light sprinkling of good salt and black pepper and a spritz of some delicious fat (coconut oil, olive oil, butter, lard, bacon drippings–whatever the mood requires that happens to be on hand), and stick it all in the oven at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit until it smells irresistible and looks as pretty as a roasted-goodies picture should look. What to roast: aromatic vegetables, root vegetables, sturdy mushrooms, and/or any protein supplements headed for the pot. That shellfish armor, some hunks of not-very-tender meat or just bones from the same birds or beasts that are destined to be the centerpiece–they can all benefit from a bout in the tanning bed. If some of it browns nicely before the rest, pull it out earlier and throw into the cauldron to get a head start simmering.

photoAll of this takes far longer to tell than it does to do.

So. Pre-roast whatever you want browned. Then you load up the slow cooker with the browned goods, vegetal parts, and seasonings, cover it all with water and/or white wine (red almost always overpowers the flavor too much for mere broth), throw in another knob of butter or other fat if so moved. Me, I’m almost always moved to add fats, okay? Then Let. It. Cook. No need to fiddle with it again for a very long time. I usually let my broth simmer for a whole twenty-four hours and get all of the flavor and life I can out of the meat, bones, vegetables and seasonings I’ve corralled in my concoction.

Dedicated vegetarians, I accept your choice, but please allow me to differ; while I relish good vegetarian dishes any time, I also respect and admire quality seafood, poultry and meats that are simmered down to their essences in broth. I cook mine so intently–but not, I insist, intensely, as that would kill their flavor and defeat the purpose of this slow ritual–that often the heaviest beef bone in the pot will break into several pieces when I begin the straining process by shoveling out the solids with my spider. Waste not; taste’s in the pot.

I cannot emphasize enough how little it matters to me to do the constant-skimming, water-changing, pot-cosseting stuff that I’m sure has perfectly meaningful and scientific reasons for being done by so many expert chefs. I can’t be bothered, because when I finally do strain out my broth and let it cool and chill it overnight and pull off the fat cap, I haven’t got any leftover grunge I won’t happily glug down plain or in a recipe. I have clear, rich, smiling, shimmering soup stuff that straight out of the fridge wiggles like a happy dashboard hula doll from all of the natural gelatin in it, soup that has rich, deep flavor from the roasting and the combination of delectable ingredients, and especially from the long sensual spa treatment melding it all together, and that I personally think has benefited greatly from not being pestered or treated with distrust. I’m not above poking the spoon in about once every two hours during daylight to slightly rearrange the parts and just make sure everyone gets an equal soak, not to mention to let a little of that intoxicating steam float around the house, but otherwise I’m all about letting the low heat and long time do their thing without interference from moi.

My general favorite broth combination these days is as follows:

Yellow onion, skin and all. Sweet onions are too soulless for soup. Sorry, sweet onions!

Carrots and celery, washed but not peeled or trimmed.

Beef: shanks, oxtail, short ribs, marrow bones, and all of the trimmings from steak dinners that got set aside in the freezer for Broth Day. Chicken: the picked carcass of last week’s roast chicken, plus a piece of fried chicken that didn’t get et at the picnic on Saturday, also all rescued from freezer purgatory. Beef and poultry are great as soloists, but together they rock the house. Just sayin’.

A small palm-full of black peppercorns, several good bay leaves, a big sprig of thyme, about a half-dozen whole cloves and a half-teaspoon or so of whole allspice. Sometimes a stick of whole cinnamon. I never add salt at this phase, since the roasted stuff was lightly salted, the meats were seasoned for their previous meals, I don’t (yes, I confess it right here in front of God and everybody) bother to use unsalted butter, and I concentrate this brew all too well to get anything but seawater if I’m adding further salt incautiously.

[Sometimes I add a knob of grassy pastured butter at this point. Because it’s insanely delicious. If I don’t put it in the pot I’m tempted to just eat it anyway, so better in the broth than in me. Maybe.]

Lop everything into approximately 2″ rough hunks. Neatness doesn’t count. Fill the cooker loosely up to the max-fill mark and then fill in the nooks and crannies with liquid. Set it a-simmer and wait for the angels to come and alight on the kitchen counter in anticipation of the unveiling lo these many hours later.