Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gourmet Today

Ok, the Gourmet of yesterday is gone. We're sad about that.

But somebody gave me at Christmas the new cookbook by the editors of Gourmet. It came out right around the time that Gourmet got the ax.  I guess it's a kind of consolation prize for those of us who miss the magazine.

I started cooking from it over the last few weeks, beginning with the soup section.  (The first section is actually  "Drinks."  It seemed sad to test this chapter alone at my farm, especially since there is no liquor store for miles around.)  The new cookbook claims to be conscious, like me, that meat is getting more expensive and that it may not be healthy in large amounts, so a lot of these soup recipes have just a little meat or none at all.  That works for me.

Some of these recipes can be found at epicurious.com, where recipes from old Gourmets have been archived.  I'll link to a few.

The first one I tried is Curried Potato and Leek Soup with Spinach. This is a gussied-up version of my beloved leek and potato soup, and honestly, I don't think it's any better.

The Chunky Butternut Squash, White Bean, and Tomato soup was very good.  I grew a lot of butternut squash last summer, and they were waiting for me in a bucket in the kitchen.  Another recipe that I used butternut squash in was Pumpkin Soup with Red Pepper Mousse.  (The recipe said you could use butternut squash instead of pumpkin.)  The mousse sounded cool but way too much trouble; the soup alone was fine without it.  Maybe I'll make the mousse garnish some other time.

The Baby Spinach Soup with Croutons was more my speed.  The garnish was just croutons, something I can handle.  I loved this soup: it was basically a thin bechamel sauce to which one adds a pound of baby spinach at the end, and some cream. I didn't have any cream so I used milk, but I bet it would be way better with cream.  (For some reason this recipe is not archived at the epicurious site.)

Spinach Stracciatella Soup was good too.  You use frozen spinach for this one, and eggs.  My dog Molly loved the leftovers.  (She likes anything that has eggs in it.)

An interesting soup is the Christmas Chestnut Soup with Sourdough Sage Croutons. This recipe calls for bottled chestnuts, which I've never seen anywhere, but luckily my neighbor had harvested some chestnuts from her trees, and she gave me some. They were pretty dried out, but some extra soaking in hot water plumped them up.  The soup had a kind of sweetness that was nice, but the color was a sort of ugly greyish brown.  One thing I figured out was that cooking soups in iron pots, while probably a healthy thing, sometimes gives them an off color.  My croutons were just sourdough, hold the sage.

Another soup requiring chestnuts was White Bean and Tuscan Kale Soup with Chestnuts.  I didn't think it was very good, but I have to say that I (1) didn't use pancetta, but country ham instead; (2) didn't use bottled chestnuts, but the aforementioned dried up fresh chestnuts; and worst of all, probably, (3) I used turnip greens instead of Tuscan kale (also known as lacinato and dinosaur kale). I usually have a great kale crop in winter, but a #@%! groundhog ate it this year.  (It's recovering a little.)  The turnip greens were too strong for the other flavors, I think.  It was not Tuscan; it was Hillbilly White Bean Soup with Dried Up Chestnuts.

The Venetian-Style Bean and Pasta Soup was good the first night, but the left-overs were not very good. I think there is too much pasta in this soup.  It's basically a bean soup with pasta.  My neighbor makes it a lot and says it was considered a low-rent dish in her childhood, and her mother was teased for making pasta fagioli a lot.  Again, Molly ate it.

The next experiment was more satisfying:  Mexican Black Bean Soup with Ancho Chiles.  This was a more complicated black bean soup than I usually make.   There were steps involving frying a mole, toasting chiles, etc.  But it was well worth it.  Weirdly, it too is not at the site.  So here's how you do it:  cook your black beans with enough water for about 2 hours.  Puree some tomatoes with some garlic and a bit of onion in a blender.  Fry that in a skillet.  Toast the chiles in a dry skillet, then saute them with some onion.  Add this mixture  to your beans.  Puree the beans in a blender.  (I used my immersion blender.)  Add some salt and the tomato sauce.  Cook together for 15 minutes.  The recipe calls for a garnish of fried tortilla strips, but I didn't do that.

The Gascon White Bean Soup was just ok.  But again, I didn't do it quite right, so maybe it's not fair to judge it harshly.  It called for a meaty smoked ham hock. I looked at these in the grocery store and just couldn't bring myself to buy it.  It looked horrible.  But it probably would have made a fairly bland soup taste better. Maybe next time I'll get some country ham and try again.  It has white beans, potatoes, and cabbage in it, and it apparently is typical of the peasant cuisine of the southwestern part of France.

Finally, last night I made Lentil, Sausage, and Escarole Soup. Well, sort of.  It was really Lentil Soup with Assorted Surviving Greens.  I left out the sausage--couldn't find any that looked very good--and the escarole--couldn't find any at all.  I had some tatsoi, a very hardy green, in the garden, plus a few limp pieces of arugula and mustard.  Those were the greens.  It was good.

There are many pages more to go of soups yet.  On the whole, I think this cookbook is worth having.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

True Grits

I grew some field corn last summer, as I do every summer. This is not the same kind of corn that we eat on the cob with such pleasure every summer.  It is quite different: the stalks get  taller--sometimes a lot taller-- and  you  have to leave the corn on the stalk for longer:  about 120 days on average.  The stalks and ears turn brown and dry up, and the plant dies.  The ear of corn is hard and dry to the touch.  You rub the dry kernels off the cob, and then you can use them to make hominy or grind them to make cornmeal or corn grits.

Field corn falls into two main categories:  dent corn and flint corn. In the Southeast, dent corn grows the best.  The kernels actually have a little dent at the fat end of the kernel.  There are lots of old varieties of field corn, and it is fun to grow a different one every summer.  My favorite is an old one called Hickory King.  But recently I've also tried Painted Mountain, an early flint corn, and some Peruvian varieties, and Tennessee Red Cob.  Painted Mountain was disappointing, as were the Peruvian varieties.  I planted Tennessee Red Cob last summer because it was supposed to be drought tolerant.  Of course, as a result we had record rainfall.  But Tennessee Red Cob didn't seem to mind.  I got a lot of ears.  I keep them in a feed sack, and periodically, I get a few ears out and rub off the kernels, dry them on low in the oven, and then grind them.

The other day I cracked them instead of grinding them into cornmeal. I was trying to make a coarse meal for grits.  When you buy quick grits in the grocery store, you are buying hominy grits.  Hominy is corn that has been nixtamalized:  that is, the kernels have been cooked in an alkali solution to loosen the hull, and then the hull has been rubbed off.  These de-hulled kernels are whole hominy.  (You can buy it in a can.)  If you dry the whole de-hulled kernels and then crack them coarsely, you have hominy grits, and they cook quickly, in about five minutes, because they have been pre-cooked.

I was making un-hominy, non-nixtamalized grits.  I just took the raw, dry corn and cracked it, as one would for chicken feed.

These kinds of grits take longer to cook--about 40 minutes--but they taste very good.  I cooked one cup of grits in four cups of water on the wood stove, very slowly, stirring frequently to keep them from sticking or burning.  This is like making polenta, the Italian cornmeal dish, or "cornmeal mush," as one of my friends calls it.  After the grits had thickened, I stirred a cup of milk in.

I thought that these Tennessee Red Cob grits tasted pretty good.  But Hickory King still wins the taste test.  This summer, I think I will plant a few hills of TN Red Cob, a few hills of Hickory King, and a few hills of gourdseed corn.  I've never grown that one before, but it's very old, and it shells easily.  I got it from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  It could be that growing these corns close to each other may cause them to cross pollinate a little, but then I will just be breeding a new corn that's sweet, drought tolerant, and easy to shell. Perfect!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cold Weather Cooking: Carolina Gold

Being inside on a cold day makes a person want to cook.  So here's what I've been experimenting with.

First, I got some interesting rice for Christmas.  It may seem odd to get rice for Christmas, but this is special rice: Carolina Gold rice.

My dad loves this rice, and he gave everybody a bag of it. You can get it at the Whole Foods in Nashville.  Perhaps coincidentally, my sister gave me a book about this rice:

This book has a connection to our family.  Karen Hess, the author, found an old South Carolina cookbook compiled by a Mrs. George Stoney.   Her husband was a distant cousin of my grandfather's.  Hess reproduces the cookbook inside her own, larger book that explains how rice cultivation came to the Low Country of the United States from Africa.  Europeans knew next to nothing about the cultivation and cooking of rice, but their African slaves knew all about it.  The rice plantations of South Carolina were totally dependent on the slaves' expertise in growing and cooking rice.
Carolina Gold rice was not grown much after the 1920s, because it needed a lot of hand labor to grow.  But now some growers are reviving it. One of them is Glenn Roberts, who has searched out and grown a lot of old Southern heirloom grains.  Here he is in a field of Carolina Gold rice:

You can read more about his project to grow heirloom Southern grains at the Anson Mills website.

Back to the cooking part.  The African way of cooking rice is different from the way most Americans do it nowadays.  Now, we are usually instructed to boil two cups of water for every cup of rice, and then add the rice and cook it for about 20 minutes, for white rice, or 40 minutes, for brown rice.  But in Africa and India, the preferred way to do it for millenia was to boil the rice in a large amount of water for fifteen minutes, and then strain it, put it back in the pot, and let it sit in a warm place for as long as an hour, to fluff up.  The result is very fluffy rice, with every grain distinct.

The Chinese are the inventors of the other way of cooking it--boiling it in water until all the water is absorbed--because this uses less fuel, and they were chronically short of fuel, apparently.

I tried cooking my Carolina Gold rice the African way, and it was very fluffy and pretty.

The other traditional way of cooking rice in South Carolina, via India and Africa, is the pilau.  In this preparation, a savory broth of meat, vegetables and herbs is prepared and strained.  Then the rice is cooked in the broth until all the broth is absorbed.  This rice is served with the meat that was strained from the broth.

I did this sort of by accident a few days after Christmas because we had a smoked turkey carcass. I made a thick, rich turkey broth with the bones and some vegetables, strained it, and then cooked some of the rice in it.  But it was really a soup rather than a pilau; nevertheless it was really good.

Indian kichadi must be a cousin of pilau:  you saute vegetables and spices, then put the rice in to saute, perhaps with some quick-cooking lentils or peas, and then add water and cook until all the water is absorbed.

In my next post, I'll talk about my experiments with another traditional Southern grain:  corn grits.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snowed In on Brangus Lane

Brangus Lane is pretty in the snow. I took some pictures on my walk yesterday.  It was very cold, but animals and people were out.


Cows have to stay outside of course.  But they don't seem to mind.

Farmers have to come outside too, at least for a little while.

There were ten kids sledding on a hill.  The snow didn't cover the grass, but that didn't stop them. They were going pretty fast, really, on their plastic sleds. My Flexible Flyer would have never worked under those conditions.

                                                                                              The parents arrived in a pick-up truck and took everybody back to the house to warm up, and maybe to have some hot chocolate.

There was some concern that folks on Brangus Lane might not be able to make their daily runs for beer (and groceries).  But I saw somebody firing up their car for a run to the Walmart  in Algood.

Still, conditions were evidently hazardous.  Somebody had gone off the road and ploughed through a fence.  There was a big hole in the fence, right where somebody went through it a couple of summers ago.  (The dogs were driving that day. )  I mentioned this hole to several people, but everybody said it wasn't them.

I saw a pretty arrangement of nandinas and golden willow against a neighbor's barn:

Somebody salted the road today, so probably tomorrow it will be passable, and we can get out if we want to.  Too bad: I kind of like being snowed in.