Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turkey Tonic: Green Pozole

We ate and drank too much on Thanksgiving. Friday, it was my turn to make dinner and since we had a big piece of pork shoulder in the fridge, I had a ready plan: green pozole.

Writing about green pozole was one of my first efforts as a food writer. It was never published. But that's okay, because I much prefer eating pozole than writing about it. In Mexico, a very close cousin of pozole soup--menudo, made with beef tripe--is considered the ultimate hangover remedy. So why not my green pozole with pork shoulder to sweep away that fuzzy feeling left over from the Thanksgiving binge?

Pozole, a soupy stew traditionally made with pork and hominy, may be the closest thing to a national dish of Mexico that most Americans have never heard of. On Thursday evenings in the southwestern state of Guererro, pozole vendors pop up as if on queue, and townsfolk fall into line with buckets to collect their take-out dinner. At the ubiquitous pozoleria, lighthearted diners lean over their steaming earthenware bowls, adding heaps of sliced avocados, radishes, onion and crumbled pork crackling called chicharon.

Like our own chili, pozole is made in innumerable variations. Just about every household has its own version. Folks in the west and south of Mexico prefer the green pozole made with fresh poblano peppers, tomatillos and pumpkin seeds swimming with shredded pork shoulder. Red pozole is a simpler brew of garlic and dried chiles. For “white” pozole, a red pepper sauce is served on the side, along with a platter of stewed pork shoulder and pig’s feet.

Some families insist on presenting half a pig’s head with the stew. The cooked eyeball is reserved for the honored guest.

One reason you may never have seen pozole on a menu is because pozole has never achieved the rank of restaurant fare. Even in Mexico, it is more likely consumed at a market stall or a curbside vendor. This is one of those dishes best made at home.

Americans have been trained to expect Mexican food slathered in cheese and sour cream. Pozole celebrates that other Mexican food, the more traditional cuisine that evolved thousands of years ago. The Spanish introduced domesticated meats and dairy products in the 16th century. Before that, life revolved around corn.

The ancient Mayans believed that humans were fashioned from corn gathered from a mountain and mixed with the blood of gods. The Aztecs sacrificed a maiden by way of blessing the new corn. The peyote worshipping Huichol people of the Sierra Madre continue to hold that the transcendental soul passes through a corn phase on its path to enlightenment.

Even the name of the particular corn used in Mexican pozole recalls ancient cycles, sun worship, a fecund earth: cacahuacentli.

In Mexico and to the north, natives preserved corn by drying it. They processed the dried kernels in lye or lime to remove the tough hull, or pericarp. By a fortuitous quirk of history, this caustic bath--known as nixtamalization--made the vitally important niacin within the corn available for digestion. Nixtamalization also imparts a pleasantly acrid flavor.

In this country, we call this kind of corn hominy. It is frequently ground into grits. In Mexico, the dried corn is ground to form masa, a basic dough used to make the tortillas served at nearly every meal. The Mexican hominy used in pozole—cacahuacentli--is improbably large, about the size of a nickel. After soaking the dried corn, chefs pinch off the tip of the kernel so that it opens like a crocus blossom when cooked.

Making pozole is a good way to get out and see the displays of exotic products in Latin supermarkets. Finding all of the ingredients may require a bit of initial detective work. But the final result makes a great family-style fest: Once the stew is ladled into bowls, everyone gets to pass the condiments around while they create their own meal.

For condiments, choose from the following: Sliced radishes, diced avocado, dried oregano, chopped fresh tomato, shredded lettuce or Napa cabbage, chopped red onion, chicharon--or fried pork skin--and wedges of lime. And of course warm corn tortillas on the side are mandatory.

Traditional pozole is a simple, one-pot meal. But I like to cook the different elements--the corn, the meat, the vegetables--separately, starting days in advance. The stew just gets better with re-heating. I’ve also jazzed it up with a few spices—allspice, cinnamon, clove--that might make some Mexican chefs cluck with disapproval. But I think the extra flavor is worth bending tradition.

Pozole verde (green pozole)

Serves 12

6 cups cooked or canned hominy (Juanita's is one good brand)


For the Broth:

I’ve eliminated the pig’s head, but there’s no reason to if you want to make an impression. Otherwise, the pork comes from the shoulder, a very inexpensive cut. Pig’s feet contribute gelatin for a richer broth, though they can be left out as tastes dictate. Latin markets sell them sliced into manageable pieces.

3 pounds pork shoulder

1 ½ pounds pig’s feet, cut into pieces (optional)

3 quarts (12 cups) chicken stock

½ large white onion, studded with six whole cloves

1 bay leaf

4 allspice berries, crushed

1 whole stick cinnamon

Combine ingredients in a stockpot. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer very gently for three hours. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside. Discard the onion. Strain the broth through cheesecloth or a fine sieve. When the pork is cool, shred it into pieces, discarding unwanted fat. Return the shredded pork to the broth. (I pick over the pig’s feet and save the edible pieces for those guests who volunteer for it. Otherwise, discard the cooked pig’s feet.)

At this point, add the hominy to the broth and refrigerate until the next step is completed.

Vegetables:

The green chilies in this recipe are fresh poblanos, the kind typically deep-fried for chilies rellenos. They are sometimes erroneously labeled as “passilla” peppers. The poblano is broad at the stem like a green bell pepper, but much darker with a purplish tinge, and narrows to a point at the opposite end. Adding to the confusion, the poblano when dried is called “ancho.”

To prepare fresh chilies, roast them over a flame on the stovetop, or under a broiler, until the skins are blistered and charred. Place them in a paper bag to steam and cool. Then remove the stems; open the chilies and discard the seeds. Remove the skin with your fingers or the dull edge of a knife.

Tomatillos appear fresh in most supermarkets. They look like small green tomatoes wrapped in papery husks, but they are actually related to the Cape Gooseberry. They should be firm and unblemished, the husk loose and easily peeled.

5 fresh poblano peppers, roasted, peeled and roughly chopped

2 medium-sized jalapeno peppers (about the size of your thumb), roasted, peeled and finely chopped

2 tablespoons lard (or canola oil)

½ large white onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, diced

12 ounces fresh tomatillos, husks removed and chopped

2 cups broth (from that made above)

1 ½ cups hulled, raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds

Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onions are almost translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chili peppers and tomatillos and cook an additional 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the pumpkin seeds in an ungreased pan over high heat until golden and crispy. Place in a food processor and chop to a fine grind. Add the cooked vegetables and some broth (you may need to do this in two batches) and process until the chilies and tomatillos are minced. Add this to the pot with the remaining broth, pork and hominy. Mix well and refrigerate.

A couple of hours before serving, remove the stew from the refrigerator and heat slowly. The final ingredient is epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), an important cooking herb in southern and western Mexico, a medicinal tea in the north. In this country, it grows wild as a weed called “wormseed.” The pungent flavor is somewhere between green tea, oregano and dill.

2 teaspoons dried epazote, tied in cheese cloth (I now use the fresh epazote that grows wild in my yard)

Add the bundle to the stew pot while it is reheating, then discard.

Serve the stew hot in large bowls, with warm tortillas and separate bowls of condiments on the side.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Heritage Thanksgiving

The first year I helped our farmer friend Mike slaughter his turkeys I came home with a 40-pound bird as my reward. It barely fit in our oven and my wife has been on a tear ever since trying to reduce the size of our Thanksgiving gobbler.


This year, we implored Mike to find us a smaller bird and he replied that he could get us something closer to 12 or 14 pounds from a friend who was raising heritage breeds. But it would cost us an extra dollar a pound, he warned. We jumped at the chance.


So our turkey this year was a 12.4-pound bronze turkey. You'll notice that these heritage birds are slightly darker, the legs a little longer, the breasts a little slimmer. I liked the look of it and cooked it in the usual manner:


About four hours before the bird is supposed to go in the oven, clean it up and salt the cavity and the outside with coarse salt. Let it sit on the kitchen counter and come up to room temperature. Just before placing it in a 450-degree oven, brush it all over with extra-virgin olive oil and stuff the cavity with onion, garlic, carrots, celery, parsley and thyme. Tie the legs together but otherwise leave the cavity open.


Place the bird on a rack inside a big roasting pan along with a handful of fresh sage and a hand full of rosemary sprigs. Place the bird in the oven for 1/2 hour to brown in the high heat. Then lower the heat to 350, remove bird and flip it over in the rack. Place it back in the oven and roast another 1/2 hour, then flip it again. Continue this process for two hours. The turkey may well be done (if you have a very heavy bird, this could take up to 3 1/2 hours. But I have never had a turkey take longer than 3 1/2 hours to roast using this method.)


To test for doneness, stick an instant-read thermometer deep into the thickest part of the thigh or the wing joint, being careful to stay away from the bone. I had to use the wing joint because the thigh on the heritage turkey wasn't thick enough. It's done when it reaches 160, or a few degrees less. Place the turkey in its rack on the kitchen counter to "coast" while you make your gravy.


For the gravy, I will have been simmering all morning the turkey neck and the gizzards (except liver) in a pot with water and the usual aromatics--onion, celery, carrot, parsley, thyme. I eat the neck with a little salt. Then I put the roasting pan on the stove top and turn the heat up to moderately high. I brown the bits at the bottom of the pan (there's much less juice and fat with a heritage turkey), then pour a couple of ladles of the giblet broth, stir everything around. Turn off the heat.



Now melt about six tablespoons butter (or turkey fat) in a large sauce pan, add six tablespoons flour and make a roux, stirring frequently over moderate heat. The flour needs to cook for just a few minutes. Now you can pour in the browning juices from the roasting pan, whisking as the gravy quickly thickens, and adding giblet broth, one ladle-full at a time, whisking and whisking, until the gravy is just the thickness you like. Remember it will get even thicker after you've taken it off the stove, so I usually shoot for something a little thinner than what I would put on the table.


Finish the gravy with a splash of heavy cream, maybe some Madeira. I didn't have Madeira this year and my wife suggested I use Calvados, the French apple brandy, instead, since we were having apple tarte Tatin for dessert. That worked just fine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


There were 13 of us for Thanksgiving dinner at my sister's new digs in McLean Virginia, including my in-laws and sister-in-law from California with her friend from India. Everyone swooned over the turkey. The heritage bird was by far the moistest, most flavorful thing we had ever tasted. It didn't need any of that brining or deep-fat frying that the food sections and magazines are all out of breath over this time of year.


Say goodbye to the Butterball. I do believe you could cook a heritage turkey almost any old way and it would still be the most delicious thing you've ever experienced.

Friday, November 28, 2008

My New Tunnel

I probably neglected to mention that when I came home from a week's vacation in August I found that something had eaten all the seedlings I had started for the fall. Romaine lettuces, cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards. Everything chewed down to the nub. I assume it was birds. I had left the seed trays out front where my wife had been watering them.

Anyway, the sudden demise of my fall seedlings put me in a funk that lasted for at least two months. I didn't do much in the garden. Didn't plant anything. Just recently I started the usual fall cleanup (late) and the new compost pile. I just assumed we wouldn't be planting anything till spring. But then I started a re-read of Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest and experienced a jolt of inspiration when he described a plastic tunnel design he'd come across while traveling in France.


The genius of this French tunnel is the edges aren't buried under the soil in the usual manner, which makes getting into the tunnel very awkward if you need to plant or harvest things. Instead, the plastic is cut at the soil line and held down with a criss-crossing pattern of string over the hoops. Getting inside to plant or harvest is a breeze. You just lift up the plastic and tuck it under the string.

I had the plastic in the garage. I bought some 1/2-inch PVC tubing at the hardware store and planted the hoops. Then I drilled holes and installed these eyelets for the string. Following the illustration in Coleman's book, it still took me a while to figure out the pattern of the string. It's like lacing your shoes--a little.

Here's a detail of the string, crossing over one hoop, then attaching at the bottom of the next hoop. I'm sure I got it wrong, because my pattern ended before I got to the end of the tunnel. Maybe I didn't have enough hoops. I used cinder block to hold the ends down. I'm sure that's not right either.

In any case, according to Coleman the end of November is way too late to be planting anything. "Don't even bother," he admonishes. There's not enough sun to get the seedlings going. But I'm noticing volunteer mustard greens coming up in the other garden beds. Something down there is germinating.


So today I lifted the plastic and planted a whole array of mustards, kales, collards, spinach, arugula, lettuce, tenderleaf greens and other stuff. We'll see what happens. If they don't grow now, I'm betting we'll see them in the spring. As Coleman says, if they can grow these greens in France in winter--actually much farther north than we are--there's plenty of sunlight here for them to grow as well. It's just a matter of protecting them. Not so much from the cold as from the wind.

Minimum soil temperature for brassica germination is said to be 40 degrees, 35 for lettuce and spinach. Stay tuned....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lunch


Leftovers, consisting of "Dad's meatloaf" with mashed potatoes and collard greens.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Shopping: none

This meatloaf, a recipe we've adopted from Tyler Florence, is now our favorite. The loaf itself consists of ground beef and ground pork with eggs, bread crumbs soaked in milk and a wicked relish made of red bell pepper, onion, tomato, ketchup and Worcesterhire sauce. Some of the relish is reserved for dressing the meat on the plate.

The loaf is shaped on a baking sheet, then topped with more of that relish and strips of Black Forest bacon. It's smokey delicious.

The collards were cooked in a smoked turkey neck broth and seasoned at the table with cider vinegar. I can hardly imagine a more decadent lunch.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Unhealthiest City in America

According to the Associated Press, that honor would go to Huntington, West Virginia. There, the dining experience is ruled by hot dogs. Huntington leads the nation in heart disease and diabetes--as well as the number of elderly people who have lost all their teeth.

"A lot of the patients we were seeing were getting heart attacks in their 30s. They were requiring open heart surgery in their 30s. And we were concerned because it used to be you wouldn't see heart patients come in until they were in their 50s," said a nurse at the regional heart institute in Huntington.

Located in coal country near the Ohio River, Huntington is on the skids economically. People live on fast food. In fact, Kentucky Fried Chicken recently issued a challenge: see if you can spend $10 in a local supermarket and come up with a meal to beat the KFC 7-piece $9.99 "value meal."

There's a pizza joint on nearly every block in Huntington and it's rare to see a jogger or bicyclist on the streets. Said one local physician: "I don't know that I've ever been in a place where I've seen so many overweight people."

Read the whole story here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hard-Boiling Old Eggs

Even farmers advise letting eggs eggs grow old before trying to hard-boil them.

The reason is, as eggs get old they deteriorate. The egg's attachment to the inside of the shell grows weaker, making it easier to peel when hard-boiled. The membrane that holds the yolk in the center of the white also breaks down, which is why yolks sometimes end up in the strangest places when you hard-boil eggs.

However, there is a method for cooking new eggs that solves the peeling problem. And wouldn't you rather have a fresh egg in your salade Nicoise?

As it happens, I am cooking a dozen old eggs that we found one day on our doorstep. We still don't know who is leaving us eggs. But since they were beyond the "use by" date, I'm hard-boiling them.

The trick is to move the eggs back and forth bettween boiling water and ice water. This causes expansion and contraction between the shell and the egg inside, making peeling a breeze. The method is described in detail in Julia Child's The Way to Cook.

For a dozen eggs, place the eggs in the bottom of a tall stock pot and cover with 3 1/2 quarts of cold water. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil and immediately remove the pot from the heat. Cover the pot and let it sit for 17 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a large bowl of ice water.

While the eggs are sitting in the ice water, put the stock pot back on high heat and bring the water back to a boil. When it is boiling, transfer the eggs back to the pot for 10 seconds. Then move them back to the ice water.

When the eggs have cooled, you can crack the shells and peel them. The eggs should be perfectly cooked (none of that grey ring around the yolk) and easily peeled. Deviled eggs never looked better.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Can Compost Save Planet Earth?

That's the question I posed in my Powerpoint presentation yesterday at the Historical Society of Washington. And about 60 determined souls braved arctic temperatures and bitter winds to show up at 10 am to hear it.

During two years as president of D.C. Urban Gardeners, I never ceased to be amazed at the number inquiries about composting. And not just from gardeners. No, there are many renters and apartment dwellers out there who want to do something good for the planet by recycling their kitchen scraps. They want to know how to compost.

Yet even here in the nation's capitol we are woefully behind in responding to this pent-up urge to compost. Unlike jurisdictions such as San Francisco, which has implemented curbside recycling of food waste and dirty paper for composting, there is virtually no public composting program or infrastructure in the District of Columbia.

In fact, crews have been busy all over town lately sucking up leaves into big trucks and hauling them off presumably to a landfill. In the past, some of those leaves have been composted on a trial basis and made available at a municipal transfer station that could take you half a day and a satellite imaging system to find.

So people want to know not just the basics of composting--what kind of bin to use, how to avoid nasty smells and rats--but where they can take their food scraps to be composted, or, if they are composting with worms, where they can take the finished castings. (Okay, how about spreading them around in the nearest curbside planting?)

In other words, people need help, and the city is not offering any.

The District is in a hard place--we are a small city/state crowded on all sides by Virginia and Maryland with not a lot of big open lots for composting. But my reading is that so many people are ready to start composting, something will have to give soon.

Note: There are many composting resources linked from this blog, starting with a series of videos detailing how to compost. For a whole list of other places where you can learn more about composting, composting with worms and composting bins, scroll down to the lower right.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Potato Demise = Baby Potatoes

We've been watching several volunteer potato plants and cheering them on as fall stretches toward winter. Would they actually survive long enough to make new potatoes? They were in the pink of health well into November and seemed to love the cooler temperatures. But then this week a blast of arctic air moved into the District of Columbia. Temperatures dipped well below freezing--into the mid-20s--and our hardy potato plants were done for. Overnight, they simply fell to the ground with no hope of a rebound.

Well, yesterday I went out and dug up two of those DOA plants and this is what I found under the soil surface--tons of new potatoes. In fact, I would venture to say these potatoes are far more productive in the fall than they are during the District's scorching summers when we are normally growing our potatoes.

As an experiment, we had planted a full bed of potato sets back in September. Normally we plant potatoes here around St. Patrick's Day. These plants also crumped and when I checked, there were no new potatoes to harvest, just tiny little buds. Now I'm thinking that if I had thought this through more thoroughly, I might have built a plastic tunnel over these potatoes and they might have survived. Imagine harvesting potatoes in January....

Rather than digging these plants up, I will leave the original sets in place. Maybe--just maybe--they will survive into the spring and start over again making more potatoes.

Kids Make Collard Greens and Hot Pepper Vinegar

Here's a shocker: Kids love collard greens.

Anytime we put green vegetables on the menu for our "food appreciation" classes we are prepared for the kids to hit the reject button. Not so with Southern collard greens. They wolfed it down and begged for seconds.

No doubt this has to do with the meaty broth the collards are cooked in. Traditionally, this would involve some sort of smoked pork product, such as smoked shoulder, or shank or hock. But not everyone in a school environment appreciates pork, so in this instance we substituted smoked turkey.

(A couple of hours of cooking will usually infuse the broth with plenty of flavor. As it turned out, our initial broth was made at home in the evening, where a certain spouse promised to turn off the stove before she went to bed. Well, the pot was left to simmer all night. We woke up to the smell of a house infused with early Thanksgiving. When we made a sample batch in class, the kids loved the aroma so much they demanded a chance to gnaw on the turkey necks.)

Collards are a traditional Southern dish, probably second only to turnip greens. I consulted a number of experts--Edna Lewis, Dori Sanders, Bill Neal, John Martin Taylor, John Egerton--and found near agreement that the cooking liquid, or "pot likker," should be as simple as possible. A gallon of water and a pound of smoked meat will do fine, although some cooks like to add onion to the broth and perhaps a little hot pepper. A little salt, even a little sugar, added to the water is permissible, but not necessary.

Cooked greens are almost required with the beans and rice--or Hoppin' John--that we made last week. And a piece of cornbread (our favorite) is practically mandatory to help soak up the juice. In the end, this becomes a dream meal for us, and it's what I plan to serve for our upcoming "parents night" dinner.

1 gallon water
1 pound smoked ham hock or smoked turkey necks
3 pounds collard greens

In a heavy pot, bring the water and smoked meat to a boil, reduce heat and cook, cover slightly ajar, for two hours or until broth has the intensity of flavor you like.

Meanwhile, rinse collard greens. Discard any that are browned or faded. Shake off water and remove green parts from the thick stem. You can cut the leafy parts from the stem with a knife, or simply tear it off. Tear the leaves into salad-size pieces and plunge these into the finished broth. Return to a boil, reduce heat and cook at a gentle boil for about 45 minutes, or until the collards are cooked through and tender.

Drain the greens and serve hot. They can also be refrigerated and reheated a day or two later. Traditionally, the greens are served with a hot pepper vinegar as follows:

Fill a quart jar with whole jalapeno peppers. Cover with cider vinegar to within 1/4 inch of the top. Cover and store for at least two week before using.

Note: Some stores now sell collards and other greens already prepped and bagged, just like salad greens.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Breakfast

Vegan roasted vegetable lasagna.

Why vegan? We had a client request a vegan dinner party because one of the guests was--you guessed it--a vegan. We wondered why the host insisted on subjecting his entire guest list to vegan food when just one of them professed to eat no animal products. In our book, you feed everyone else the usual way and make one vegan plate. But this particular host did not want the vegan to feel singled out. Thus, vegan lasagna.

It was preceeded by a lovely fall salad and served with our own roasted sweet potatoes with caramelized shallots. Dessert was pears poached in a Gewurztraminer syrup. A lovely meal, with a couple of servings of lasagna left over.

I make this very much the same way as our normal roasted vegetable lasagna except no cheese. Peel two medium eggplant and slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch thicknesses. Cut about four zucchini and four summer squash the same way. Cut two red onions into 1/2 rings. Spread everything on baking sheets, brush everything with extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast until the vegetables are bubbling and just beginning to brown. No doubt you will need to do this in batches.

Then simply spread a thin layer of marinara sauce on the bottom of a Pyrex baking dish (or something similar), cover with lasagna noodles (my wife cooked eggless noodles for this, otherwise I use no-boil noodles) and start layering the vegetables (chop the onion rounds into pieces) and repeat until you've filled the pan. We also inserted some store-bought roasted red peppers. Over each layer, scatter some chopped fresh marjoram or basil. Marjoram gives the lasagna an assertive, densely herbacious flavor that I particularly like.

My fear was that without the cheese the lasagna would just fall apart before it got to the plates. But somehow it holds together. And it is exceptionally delicious--even reheated several days later for breakfast.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Black Bean Soup with Smoked Butt and Butternut Squash

The inspiration for this soup was a hunk of butternut squash sitting unused at the bottom of the crisper drawer and a 1-pound bag of dried black beans that came back from one of my "food appreciation" classes.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of butternut squash and black beans together. My mind has been occupied with Southern food lately, so thoughts naturally drifted toward pork in the soup somehow. I wasn't sure if this was becoming a Southern soup or something Cuban or Caribbean. It just evolved. I stopped at the market for a piece of "smoked butt," something we used to eat all the time when I was a kid. You don't see much mention of it anymore. It's really just a cured ham, but made from the shoulder--or "butt"--end of the pig rather than the hindquarters.

This soup is a two- or three-day affair. Not much work, in fact, but you do need to cook the beans. Pick over a 1-pound bag of dried black beans and remove any stones. Then pour the beans into a large mixing bowl and cover with lots of water. There should be several inches of water over the beans. Let this soak overnight.

The following day, in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, saute a large onion, peeled and cut into small dice, along with three or four stalks of celery, peeled to remove the tough fibers and cut into small dice. You can cook this with bacon fat or extra-virgin olive oil. Stir in a teaspoon of coarse salt to season and draw out the juices.

Cook the vegetables over moderately low heat until the onion is tender, about 8 minutes. Place a smoked ham hock in the center of the vegetables along with four thick slices of pork fat back (or "streak-o'-lean) that have been quickly browned in a skillet. Drain the beans and add these plus 3 1/2 quarts water. Make a spice sachet by tying in cheesecloth a fist-full of parsley sprigs, several sprigs of fresh thyme, two or three bay leaves and a half-dozen peppercorns. Use a length of string long enough so that you can tie off one end to the handle of your pot for easy retrieval. Drop the spice sachet into the water, bring the whole thing to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, with cover slightly ajar, for about 3 hours, or until the beans are perfectly tender and the soup is redolent of smoked pork.

At this point, I would remove the pot from the heat, cover it completely and let it cure overnight on the stovetop. But you don't have to. The next step is remove the spice sachet, the ham hock and the fat back and run the soup through a food mill or blender until it is smooth and creamy. If it's too thick, add some water. If it seems to thin, cook it some more with the lid off. Then add to the soup 1/2 of a medium butternut squash, skin and seeds removed and cut into medium dice. Also add about 1 pound of smoked butt, cut into medium dice and browned in a skillet for extra flavor.

Bring the soup back to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the squash is cooked through and tender, about 30 minutes. Do stir the soup frequently, especially around the bottom to prevent the beans from scorching. To finish the soup, stir in 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander and 1 tablespoon molasses. I could also see finishing this bean and squash soup with some balsamic vinegar, some red wine or sherry. There's plenty of room for improvisation.

To serve, ladle into hot, shallow bowls and garnish with chopped cilantro. A slice of buttered corn bread would be perfect on the side.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Everything-in-the-Fridge Pizza

Pizza is something we sometimes save up for, meaning a ball of mozzarella cheese allowed to sit in the fridge for a few days while other ingredients accumulate as leftovers.

When the mood suddenly strikes, my wife the baker launches into a frenzy of kitchen activity, making the dough, proofing the dough, assembling toppings, sometimes making a sauce. Since one of our favorite pizzas is topped with caramelized onions and blue cheese, the process also involves a long, slow simmering of onions on the stove top, filling the house with that unmistakable caramelization aroma.

Last night the pizza maker was foraging in the fridge for all kinds of leftovers to go on the pizza. The one in this picture was made with previously frozen spinach, along with the remains of a tin of roasted red peppers and a fairly ancient tomato sauce. There were also two kinds of chicken pizza--one with barbecue sauce--caramelized onion without blue cheese, and daughter's favorite, pepperoni and cheese.

We were even able to enlist a container of previously grated Parmesan cheese. Not a bad night for cleaning out the fridge.

I may have previously mentioned that my wife makes the world's best pizza crust. We like it thin, just a little chewy and more on the well-done side. If you are so inclined, here is the recipe for the dough. It will make four medium-size pizzas, plenty of room to display all your leftovers. And you'll have tomorrow's lunch as well.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lunch

Assorted leftovers from the fridge, constituting a vegetarian feast:

Roasted parsnips and carrots, boiled potatoes, chopped spinach, sauteed mushrooms, canned baby peas. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Dust with leftover grated parmesan cheese.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Shopping: none

The Gift of Eggs

And I don't mean figuratively, but quite literally: Someone has been leaving eggs on our doorstep.

The first carton appeared a couple of weeks ago and we chalked it up to one of those curious things that sometimes happen in the big city. But then we found a second carton of eggs (pictured here) sitting on the steps just inside our front gate.

We suspected that our mysterious egg gifter might be our farmer friend Mike Klein. We've been pestering Mike about getting a delivery of some of his farm-fresh eggs. Maybe we'd be seeing an invoice soon?

But when I e-mailed Mike, he insisted it wasn't him. "I'm not that generous," he said.

Then last night we found not one but two quart-size cartons of soy-based yogurt--one stacked on top of the other--sitting on the same concrete step where we'd found the last batch of eggs. What the...?

My wife suggested I check the "sell by" dates on the yogurt and the eggs. Perhaps these weren't so much gifts as just cast-offs someone was trying to dispose of with us. Sure enough, the "use by date" on the eggs had expired. I did not check the yogurt: that went directly into the trash.

Then our thoughts turned to the woman we met on the sidewalk one day who recognized me as "that guy who composts." I was thrilled to be recognized. Then the woman revealed that for her this was no brush with fame. She asked if we would accept her banana peels for the compost pile (I guess she eats a lot of bananas.)

Since that time, we occasionally find a plastic grocery bag on our stoop containing banana peels. Could she have graduated to leaving eggs and yogurt? Who buys so many eggs and so much yogurt that they need to dispose of whole cartons?

So far we have kept the eggs over the objections of our daughter, who fears they might be poisoned (such is the world we live in, I guess). If you are the giver of these items and you are reading this, you should know how much we appreciate the thought behind your donations. But you should also know that we do not compost eggs or yogurt. The eggs we plan to hard-boil. If I had a pig, I would feed the yogurt to it. But in the absence of a pig, the yogurt unfortunately is headed for the landfill.

Otherwise, the mystery continues....

Friday, November 14, 2008

Kids Make Hoppin' John

Where would mankind be without beans?

Beans are loved the world over in flavorful bean dishes and in processed foods such as tofu. They're full of fiber and iron and lots of protein. But as the kids in our "food appreciation" classes learned this week, beans do not provide the complete protein needed to grow healthy bodies because they lack some important amino acids. That's why beans are so often paired with grains such as rice and corn. Not only do grains taste great with beans, they bring the required amino acids to the table. The proliferation of bean and rice dishes around the world is no accident.

As we continue our virtual food road trip, we made our way to South Carolina where the "low country" once was an important source of rice in America. You can still find lowcountry rice, but its importance to the nation's food basket has faded. What lives on is a bean and rice dish traditional to the region called "Hoppin' John."

This is a very simple dish made by cooking the beans in a pot with onion and ham hock, then adding the rice to cook in the flavorful broth. An easier one-pot dish could hardly be found, and this one is very kind on the budget as well. Hoppin' John falls into the category of poverty food, yet like so many traditional country dishes, this one is so delicious and so satisfying.

This recipe comes from a book appropriately titled, Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, written by John Martin Taylor. It's a book worth owning for the many simple, hearty dishes we associate with this particular region.

The cooking time required for making Hoppin' John is a bit longer than we have in our "food appreciation" classes, so I made the dish ahead. What the kids did was shell the beans we had growing in our garden, as shown in the photo of blackeyed peas above. I brought the whole plants--brown and dessicated--to school in a recycling bin.

Kids are funny. Sometimes the simplest things will occupy them totally. They go from being utterly unteachable one minute, to completely absorbed in the task of shelling beans the next.

Normally I use brown rice for nutrition, but white rice is traditional for this dish. You might try using brown basmati rice--it's not quite so brown and does not take too long to cook.

1 cup dried beans such as cowpeas or blackeyed peas
5 cups water
1 smoke ham hock
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
1 cup long grain rice
salt to taste

Pick over the beans to remove any stones or damaged beans. Add them to a heavy pot with the water, removing any beans that float. Add ham hock and onion. Bring pot to a boil, then reduce heat and cook, uncovered, until beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add rice and cook until tender. Remove pot from heat, cover and allow rice to steam another 10 minutes.

Serve warm, preferably with some boiled greens (the vitamin C in the greens helps absorb the iron in the beans) and a slice of corn bread.

Just to illustrate how important rice and beans are around the world, a parent came up to me while I was washing the cook pot after our lesson and exclaimed, "Oh! You're making a rice cookup." I must have given her a quizzical look, because she went on the explain: "That's what my mother always called it, 'rice cookup.' She'd make it just like that--beans and rice, some beef tripe and coconut milk...."

Turns out the parent grew up in Guiana. Not so far from South Carolina, it seems.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Potted Cheese

When I'm throwing a party and not feeling very rich I often put a potted cheese out for hors d'oeuvres. This is one way to turn an economical slicing cheese into something exotic looking that spreads on a cracker.

Potted cheese is simply cheese grated and marinated in beer, then spiked with dried mustard and Worcestershire sauce and blended fine. Scrape it into a small bowl and guests will think you are an entertaining genius. (You don't have to tell them you're just trying to save a few pennies.) It has the added virtue of keeping almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.

To make this potted cheese, I used two kinds of cheddar, one from Vermont, the other from England, one orange, the other yellow. In general, I prefer a sharp cheddar cheese for flavor. This particular recipe is from Fancy Pantry, by Helen Witty, one of our favorite sources for making tangy dishes out of fresh produce and odd bits.

3/4 pound good quality cheddar cheese (you can combine different kinds if you like)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2/3 cup excellent beer (I use a dark Belgian ale)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, slightly softened at room temperature
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
generous pinch white mustard
pinch cayenne
salt to taste

Grate the cheese and combine it at the bottom of a mixing bowl with the mustard and the beer. Press the cheese down until it is covered by the beer, cover the bowl and let it stand for a few hours or overnight.

Place the softened butter in a food processor and process until creamy. Add the cheese mixture, Worcestershire sauce, white pepper and cayenne. Process everything until the mixture is smooth, scraping down the side of the bowl occasionally as needed. Taste and add more seasonings as you desire, as well as some salt if it needs it.

Pack the cheese into a crock or ceramic bowl. Smooth the top and cover with plastic wrap. For longterm storage, cover the cheese with clarified butter to a depth of about 1/4 inch, then cover the container and refrigerate.

Serve at room temperature, but leave the cheese out of the refrigerator long enough to soften. Crackers or toasted baguette are the perfect accompaniment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fall Potatoes

We planted potatoes this fall as an experiment. And look how happy the plants are! Much happier, I should say, than they were during the summer. Summers in the District of Columbia are typically so hot and humid, especially July and August.

In truth, potatoes are a cool weather plant, unlike their cousins, tomatoes and peppers. Most other plants love this time of year: the Swiss chard, for instance, have never looked better. The rhubarb are in the pink of health. The sorrel, the thyme, the rosemary--they are all flush with vigor and vitality.

I wish I could give our garden more weather like this. There is an added benefit to the garden: the pests and diseases that might otherwise bother our crops are in full retreat. Of course the potatoes will not stand up to a hard freeze. We are hoping they will last long enough to at least make some small potatoes that we can cook for dinner.

This week I was weeding in the potato bed--yanking all that chickweed that also loves these cool temperatures so much--and came across several seed potatoes that are sprouting, but so far have not broken the surface. It will be fun to watch their progress.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sweet Potato Pie

Really, all I wanted from my wife the baker were a few tips for making a sweet potato pie.

We have all these sweet potatoes harvested from the garden and sweet potato pie was pencilled in as dessert for our choucroute dinner. But as so often happens, making this pie would not be as easy as--well, pie. We first had to have a discussion.

My idea was to make the pie in Bill Neal's classic Southern cookbook, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie. What could be more authentic, I reasoned,
than a pie from the legendary Bill Neal and a book with sweet potato pie right in the title?

But my wife was not convinced. As she so often does in these situations, she first wanted to check Bill Neal's recipe against the one in The New Best Recipe, the tome from Cook's Illustrated that my wife considers her recipe bible. Sure enough, she started picking Bill Neal's version apart, piece by piece. Too much molasses. Not enough egg. Dry sherry--huh?

My wife thinks I'm crazy not to be in love with The New Best Recipe. My main beef is, the authors seem to be less interested in authenticity than in their own idealized vision of how certain foods should be. Using their personal bias as a starting point, they then weed through recipes from hither and yon, adjusting and changing them as they go until they arrive at something that more or less matches their preconceived notions.

Apparently, that suits my wife just fine. And being a man of a certain age, I've learned that beating your chest is useless. The female species is always right. It's wiser to just submit.

Hence, sweet potato pie from The New Best Recipe, wherein the authors seek "to create a distinctive sweet potato pie, a recipe that honored the texture and flavor of sweet potatoes while being sufficiently recognizable as a dessert. Neither a custardy, pumpkin-style pie nor a masked-potatoes-in-a-crust pie would do."


For the pie filling:

2 pounds sweet potatoes

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

3 large eggs, plus 2 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2-3 tablespoons bourbon

1 tablespoon molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup whole milk

1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

Prick the sweet potatoes several times with a fork and place them on a double layer of paper towels in a microwave (I bake my sweet potatoes at 325 degrees in the oven). Cook at full power for 5 minutes, turn each potato over and continue to cook at full power until tender but not mushy, about 5 minutes longer. Cool 10 minutes. Halve a potato crosswise, insert a small spoon between the skin and flesh and scoop the flesh into a medium bowl. Discard the skin. (If the potatoes are too hot to handle, use paper towels as a wrapper.) Repeat with remaining sweet potatoes. You should have about 2 cups. While potatoes are still hot, add butter and mash with a fork or wooden spoon. Small lumps of potato should remain.

Whisk together the eggs, yolks, sugar, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in bourbon, molasses and vanilla. Whisk in milk. Gradually add egg mixture to sweet potatoes, whisking gently to combine. Set aside.

For a pre-baked crust:

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons vegetables shortening, chilled

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

4-5 tablespoons ice water.

Process flour, salt and sugar in a food process until combined. Add shortening and process until mixture has the texture of coarse sand, about 10 seconds. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture, then cut butter into flour until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse crumbs, with butter bits no larger than small peas, about 10 1-second pulses. Turn mixture into a medium bowl.

Sprinkle 4 tablespoons ice water over mixture. Use rubber spatula and folding motion to mix. Press down on dough with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to 1 tablespoon more ice water if dough will not come together. Flatten dough into 4-inch disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 2 days before rolling.

Remove dough from refrigerator and let stand until malleable. Roll dough on lightly floured surface into a 12-inch circle. Transfer dough to a 9-inch pie plate by rolling the dough around the rolling pin and unrolling it over the pan. Working around the circumference of the pie plate, ease the dought into the pan corners by gently lifting the edge of the dough with one hand while gently pressing it into the pan bottom with the other hand. Trim the dough edges to extend about 1/2 inch beyond the rim of the pan. Fold the overhang under itself; flute the dough or press the tine of a fork against the dough to flatten it against the rim of the pie plate. Refrigerate the dough-lined pie plate until firm, about 40 minutes, then freeze until very cold, about 20 minutes.

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the dough-lined pie plate from the freezer, press a doubled 12-inch piece of heavy-duty foil inside the pie shell and fold the edges of the foil to shield the fluted edge. Distribute 2 cups ceramic or metal pie weights over the foil (my wife used some pennies in addition to her pie weights). Bake, leaving the foil and weights in place until the dough looks dry and is light in color, 25 to 30 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and weights by gathering the corners of the foil and pulling up and out. For a partially baked crust, continue baking until light golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.


While the crust is still warm, cover the bottom with 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar and the pie filling. Pour pie filling over the brown sugar. Bake on the lower-middle rack until the filling is set around the edges but the center jiggles slightly when shaken, about 45 minutes. Transfer pie to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving with your best whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

The brown sugar creates an unexpected layer of flavor at the bottom of the pie. We knew the pie was just right when our friend Pete, a West Virginia native who has an unerring taste for home-cooked food, sat bolt upright at the dinner table and nearly dropped his fork.

"Dang, that's good!" Pete exclaimed. "How did you do that? Mine is almost always flat."

Well, my wife would say it's all about The New Best Recipe, Pete. And I ain't gonna argue. (Bill Neal, wherever you are, eat your heart out.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

More Cholesterol Myth Busting?


Heart experts--using terms such as "ground-breaking" and "paradigm-shifting"--are hailing a new study indicating that inflammation, not cholesterol, may be the reason for much of the world's heart disease and that statin drugs should be prescribed for many people whose cholesterol levels are otherwise normal.

The study, involving 18,000 volunteers in 26 countries, concludes that most people might benefit more from taking a $20 blood test that measures high-sensitive C-reactive protein (HSCRP), an indicator of heart inflammation.

The Washington Post quotes all kinds of experts calling this study nothing short of the Rosetta Stone where heart disease is concerned. But anyone who's been reading Nina Planck or Sally Fallon knows there's a whole movement of folks who never bought into the cholesterol theory of heart disease and have insisted all along that inflammation--caused by an industrial diet overloaded with Omega-6 fatty acids from processed corn and soybean oils and other factory foods previously unknown to humans--is the real cause of our modern heart disease epidemic.

Many experts, in fact, have congregated around the belief that cholesterol from saturated animal fats as a cause of heart disease is unproven and largely a myth. The Washington Post makes no mention of these longtime advocates of the alternative inflammation hypothesis. But I'm guessing there are quite a few Weston Price followers experiencing an Ah-ha! moment this morning.

Why don't we all make ourselves a big bowl of whole-fat, grass-fed yogurt and ponder that.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Season's First Choucroute

Choucroute as a recipe is less important than the people you invite to eat it with. So thank you Linda, Tom, Larry, Valca, Pete and Steve for joining us last night. Since we were all basking in the glow of Tuesday's election results, this also constituted our Kumbaya moment.

Choucroute is a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and pork products but there is no single agreed-upon way to make it. In other words, don't feel you have to make it exactly as written in your picture book of French cookery. My own method starts with home-made sauerkraut, shown in the photo at left beginning with about 10 pounds of shredded cabbage and six tablespoons of pickling salt packed firmly in a heavy plastic bucket so that the brine that leaches from the cabbage rises over the top. Give it a month or more to finish.

I then hop on the subway to Capitol Hill to select my pork products from the local butchers: a smoked hock or shank, bacon ends, smoked chops, fresh pork belly if they have it and Kielbasa sausage and bratwurst. Then I get back on the subway and head downtown to the Cafe Mozart where the deli case holds weisswurst and lots of other goodies. Being made of veal, I'm not sure how traditional weisswurst is in choucroute. But we love it and so do all our guests.

The day before the event, I saute a large onion with some bacon grease at the bottom of our biggest and heaviest cookpot. Cook it until it is soft and lightly caramelized. Then I grate two Granny Smith apples (with skins) directly into the pot before adding about six cups of fresh sauerkraut. I stir in a teaspoon of caraway seeds and about a dozen crushed juniper berries. Then I push my smoked ham hock deep into the middle of the kraut, pour in a half cup of Riesling wine and bring the whole mess to a boil. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover the pot and let it simmer for an hour or more until the kraut is soft, aromatic and unctuous.

But for this particular choucroute, there was something special: sauerruben, or fermented grated turnips, that have been mellowing in our refrigerator for the last year and a half. They have an other-worldly nutty flavor to go with the mild tang of fermentation. I added about two cups of that to my pot as well. The results were beyond anything we've ever experienced from mere sauerkraut.

While the pot is simmering, brown all of your other meats in a heavy skillet with a little cooking oil or bacon grease. These can be wrapped and refrigerated until the following day, when the sausages, the bacon ends, the smoked chops and the pork belly are all packed into the pot to wait until the guests arrive, when we turn the heat up to a gentle simmer and let those kraut and wine juices steam everything for about 45 minutes.

We loaded the finished kraut and meat onto a big platter and served it buffet-style with roasted parsnips and carrots from the garden, mashed potatoes and homemade apple sauce. All of the guests had brought various German wines and the libations did flow. Conversation was lively, interrupted by exclamations over the turnip-infused kraut.

For dessert, we plated a stunning sweet potato pie made by my wife the baker from sweet potatoes grown just outside the kitchen window. More about that anon. I am still recovering.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Green Tomato Mincemeat

Can you believe we are still processing green tomatoes?

Our final harvest netted us a bus tub full of green tomatoes plus another bus tub full of tomatoes in various stages of ripeness. Here it is November and we are looking for new and different ways to use our green ones.

We love our sweet pickled green tomatoes and green tomato and apple chutney. In our latest search, we came across this recipe for green tomato, apple and pear mincemeat in Helen Witty's Fancy Pantry. It sounds an awful lot like the green tomato chutney, but with sharper flavors: lemon, pear, allspice, cloves, ginger and rum.

Besides serving our green tomato chutney as a condiment, we like to spread it on a cracker with goat cheese. I see a similar destination for this meatless mincemeat, which also would be perfectly fine in pastries and such. This recipe makes about eight pints, which is a lot. You could easily halve it and can the mincemeat in half-pint jars for holiday gift-giving.

3 quarts coarsely chopped green tomatoes, scrubbed and trimmed of stem scars
1 tablespoon iodized salt
1 1/2 quarts diced, peeled and cored firm, tart apples
1 quart diced, peeled and cored firm, slightly underripe pears
2 1/2 cups dark seedless raisins
Grated zest and chopped pulp of 1 or 2 medium oranges
Grated zest of 2 small lemons
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup undiluted frozen apple concentrate, thawed
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup dark rum (we substituted Calvados)

Stir chopped tomatoes and salt together, scrape into a colander and let drain for 2 hours

Combine drained tomatoes with apples, pears, raisins, orange zest and pulp, lemon zest, vinegar, apple concentrate, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and ginger in a preserving pan or heavy, non-reactive pot. Bring mixture to a boil over moderately-high heat. Lower heat and cook, uncovered, stirring often, until mincemeat is thick enough to mound in a spoon, about 1 hour. Take care to stir often and scrape the bottom to prevent burning.

Stir rum (or Calvados) into boiling-hot mincemeat, cook a minute or two longer, then ladle into hot, clean canning jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air bubbles (I poke around the mincemeat and stir gently using a long wooden skewer). Seal jars with new two-piece canning lids according to manufacturer's instructions and process in a boiling water bath for 25 minutes (for pint-size jars). Let mincemeat mellow for about a month before using.

Note: you can also store the mincemeat covered but not sealed in your refrigerator.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Kids Make Souffleed Corn Bread

For the second stop on our virtual world culinary tour, the kids in my "food appreciation" classes traveled to the Appalachian region of western North Carolina.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between Appalachian fare and what we loosely refer to as Southern Food. Sometimes the two intertwine. Corn is a staple of both and corn meal--the basis for hearty corn bread--in ubiquitous in this part of the country. Think grits, hush puppies, spoon bread--we could devote a whole book to this one particular grain and how it permeated the soul of America's one true cuisine.

My go-to reference for Southern baked goods is the classic Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, by Bill Neal. Originally from South Carolina, Bill Neal made a name for himself as a restaurateur in Chapel Hill, NC, with his wife Moreton Neal, then went on to become something of a scholar where Southern food is concerned before he died too young at the age of 41 from AIDS. Neal included no less than seven recipes for corn bread in Biscuits, Spoonbread. What they all have in common is corn meal, of course, and an iron skillet in which to bake the bread. Frequently, the recipe also calls for buttermilk and a chemical rising agent, such as baking soda and sometimes baking powder.

These are the essentials of true, Southern corn bread, not the cakey, overly sweet stuff you so often see in cafeteria lines.

A corn bread souffleed with beaten egg whites would be the kind of thing you'd put out when company came for dinner. (In fact, this is a variation on something Bill Neal called "Company Corn Bread.") Mainly, what I wanted the kids in our "food appreciation" classes to appreciate is the role rustic corn meal plays in our food culture and how it can be manipulated with a few simple ingredients into something ethereally delicious.

In some Southern households, it was customary to have at least one heavy iron skillet on hand devoted to making corn bread. From frequent use, the skillet would become well-seasoned and non-stick. You may not have an iron skillet devoted to making corn bread. If you don't have an iron skillet at all, can I suggest getting one? It is a great kitchen tool, something we use all the time.

1 1/2 cup white cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, separated
3/4 cup creamed-style canned corn
3 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a large measuring cup, mix buttermilk, egg yolks, creamed corn and melted butter. (I melt the butter in the iron skillet in the oven, which has the added virtue of greasing the skillet. Simply pour the butter, once melted, into the measuring cup with the other wet ingredients, then put the skillet back in the oven to heat up again.)

In a separate mixing bowl, beat eggs whites to stiff peaks.

Meanwhile, pour wet ingredients from measuring cup into dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated. Then fold in the beaten egg whites. Pour the mixture into the hot skillet. If the batter bubbles around the edges, you know you are on the right track. Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the top of the corn bread is lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

You could serve this bread with your favorite barbecue, with a bowl of Southern greens or beans, a salad or just an afternoon snack. If possible, serve it warm, perhaps with a drizzle of melted creamery butter or some local honey.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes We Can


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Time for Change


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Braided Sweet Potato Bread

I'm not the baker in the family--that would be my wife. But I can make this sweet potato bread, which should prove that anyone can do it as well.

This is a versatile bread with a light taste of sweet potatoes, just the thing to help us use that huge haul of sweet potatoes we made from the garden recently. I made some for our recent "food appreciation" classes where the kids spread slices of bread with fresh apple butter. That's another great combination.

The first thing my wife noticed about this loaf was that I'd screwed up the braid. Oh, well. I guess I was AWOL when they were giving braiding instructions. But with an egg glaze nicely browned in the oven, no one really notices. This bread is especially good toasted for breakfast. I've been snacking on it lately, smeared with blue cheese.

The recipe, which I initially posted here, makes two loaves that can be braided or not. Start eating one now and freeze the second loaf for later. Another suggestion: consider replacing some of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour.