Monday, September 10, 2007

Edna's Spoon Bread

A client ordered a birthday party by way of a sit-down dinner this weekend, the perfect opportunity to lay on a feast of the summer's best produce.

The menu I devised started with two passed hors d'oeuvres: Latin-style grilled shrimp with guacamole dip and endive leaves with an herbed goat cheese. First course I envisioned as a plate of artfully arranged slices of heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese and homemade pesto sauce. For the entree, I liked the idea of grilled Niman Ranch pork chops with a plum compote, fried green tomatoes and spoon bread, also known as corn pudding. Dessert had to be peach cobbler, in this case with raspberries and vanilla whipped cream.

Sounds delicious, no? Well, as these things often go in catering, the client for some reason was not keen on the pork chops. Perhaps one of his guests was averse to pork. So that was changed to lamb chops (not a summer dish, to my mind) with a garlicky herb sauce. Oh, and could we do something chocolatey for dessert (I forgot this client is a chocoholic). My wife was not keen on baking anything in this latest heat wave, so she made a chocolate creme brulee with raspberries. Then it turned out this was the week none of the vendors brought green tomatoes to the market and I did not want to sacrifice mine. I substituted my famous three-hour braised green beans.

Then dinner for 11 turned into dinner for 13, when two guests who never RSVP'd showed up. Don't you hate it when that happens? Oh, well, still a wonderful meal.

I was not in attendance at this particular dinner. My wife was playing chef, my sister waiter. But I'm told everything went fabulously, especially the part where the guests found out my sister sings opera, requested a certain aria and she blew everyone's hair back with those big soprano pipes of hers. (There'll be a little extra something in the pay check for that, not to worry.)

But the point of this story is what Southerner's like to call spoon bread, or what we Northerners refer to as corn pudding. To my mind, there's hardly anything better in the world than freshly picked corn on the cob steamed in its husks, then peeled and slathered with butter and eaten as is--still almost too hot to handle--with a sprinkle of course salt and freshly ground black pepper. (The Mexican's go one better: They slather the corn with mayonnaise and dust it all over with grated fresh cheese, one of the most decadent things you can buy in the mercado).

If you must remove the corn from the cob with anything other than your own teeth, I can't think of a better way to prepare it than as spoon bread. It retains the brilliant flavor of fresh corn, and it makes an easy buffet dish or a dramatic presentation cut into rounds and placed strategically on a dinner plate.

The farmers markets are bursting with corn right now. Or perhaps you pass a farm stand on your way to work. Get some corn. Get a dozen ears or so and cook it three different ways, starting with the method described above. You'll be regretting it all winter long if you don't.

For the spoon bread, we follow the recipe in Edna Lewis' book, In Pursuit of Flavor. To make a large ceramic oval, or enough for at least a dozen people (more like 15), start with 2 cups of corn kernels, freshly hulled. You'll need six, maybe eight ears of corn. Remove the husks and the silk. We like to invert a ceramic bowl and place it at the bottom of a big mixing bowl. Stand a corn cob on the ceramic bowl and slice through the kernels as close to the cob as possible so they fall into the bowl. When all of the kernels have been removed, use the back of your knife to scrape all the milky juices from the cob.

Now mix together the wet ingredients, 5 cups milk, 6 eggs, 6 tablespoons melted butter. In a separate bowl, mix together 1 1/2 cups white cornmeal, 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 teaspoons salt and 4 tablespoons baking powder.

Run the corn and the wet ingredients in batches through a blender or food processor to liquefy. (We like to hold back some of the corn kernels to add later to the mix, to retain some texture.) Then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to blend. Pour the batter into a buttered casserole and bake about 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or until the spoon bread has set in the middle.

Serve this warm or room temperature with any kind of summer roast or grilled meats. It is especially good with barbecue. Can't you just see it next to a pulled pork sandwich and cole slaw? Add some sweet tea and you are home. My wife used a large biscuit cutter to make rounds of spoon bread for her composed dinner plates. We spent the rest of the afternoon nibbling off the plate of trimmings.

Thank you, Edna.

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