Friday, June 29, 2007

Easy: Great Corn Bread

Recently we've been eating a lot of corn bread. The nobler reason is to accompany the delicious fresh organic vegetables Kevin, our daughter Maria's fiancé, has been producing. The other, and more practical, reason is that as summer and its bugs show up we want to eat our stone-ground corn meal before the weevils get in there and eat it for us.

There are many different corn breads, especially in the South. Some have added goodies like "craklin's" (crisp-fried pork or bacon fat bits with most of the grease fried out) or jalapeños. Some are thin and crisp, some thick and cakey. Some are greasy, some are sweet. Our family favorite is "spoon bread", a soft, moist, almost custard-like treat that is spooned out hot onto the plate and generously buttered. Originally from Virginia, it seems like a New World response to Yorkshire Pudding. And it does go well with roasts, especially ham. A close second favorite is a moist and tender, but more conventional, corn bread of the type we encountered as "egg bread" during our two years in Tennessee. I've worked on the recipe and what I show below is the result. The spoon bread recipe follows that as a bonus, but it is essentially the recipe from the "Joy of Cooking" with minor adjustments.

Traditions and availability vary on the type of corn meal to use. White is typical in the South, but yellow corn meal shows up here as well. Yellow is more common in the North and Midwest. Self-rising meal, with salt and leavening added by the miller, or cornmeal "mix", with wheat flour as well as leavening and salt, are pretty common in the South. With the latter, you add only egg and milk or buttermilk. Personally I prefer plain cornmeal so I can make the bread the way I want, plus I usually like less salt than is in the mixtures. Stone ground meal, readily available in the South but perhaps not elsewhere, seems to make tastier bread than the regular meal, but even Quaker or Aunt Jemima's (both from the Quaker Oats company) work fairly well. Sugar is individual preference, with Southern cornbread less sweetened. The traditional shortening was bacon grease or lard. I use butter or, increasingly, olive oil, which make a great corn bread. Finally, buttermilk is the traditional (and very tasty) liquid for corn bread. But regular milk soured with some vinegar, or the newly popular kefir, work well too. Some bread is made with regular fresh rather than soured milk, in which case no baking soda is used, only baking powder. The corn bread recipe below has a soured milk for the liquid, while the spoon bread which follows uses fresh milk.

One of the "tricks" for good crispy corn bread is thoroughly heating the baking pan or dish, heating the butter or oil in it, mixing the heated butter or oil into the batter, and returning everything to the still-hot pan. The classic baking dish was a large cast iron skillet.

Southern Corn Bread Tim (serves six)

Set oven for 375 degrees (360 for convection). Place a 9-by-12 inch glass or metal baking pan in the oven and heat it thoroughly. Five minutes before baking the bread, add 6 (or less) tablespoons butter or olive oil to the pan or dish to heat.

Mix together and transfer onto a piece of paper:
1 cup yellow or white corn meal (not "self-rising" or "mix")
2/3 cup flour
2 to 3 teaspoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

In the bowl, lightly beat 2 eggs, then stir in:
2 cups buttermilk, kefir, or 2 cups less 2 tablespoons milk plus 2 tablespoons vinegar

Stir in the dry ingredients, just until moistened. Pour the hot butter or oil into the batter, stir it in briefly, then put the batter back into the hot pan. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the edges are golden and the bread bounces back when you touch it in the center. Serve warm.

Spoon Bread in the manner of Joy of Cooking (serves six)

Heat a large shallow casserole dish in a 375 degree oven (360 for convection). Five minutes before baking the bread, add 1/4 cup butter or olive oil to the baking dish.

Mix together and set aside:
1 cup white or yellow corn meal (not "self-rising" or mix)
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, lightly beat 2 eggs. Stir in:
2 cups milk (an extra cup of milk will be poured over the batter later)

Gently mix in the dry ingredients, just until moistened. Remove the hot casserole dish with the shortening from the oven and pour it into the batter. Mix it in very briefly, then pour the batter back into the hot dish and place it the oven. Pour over the top of the batter:
1 cup milk.

Bake 30 or more minutes, until the top and edges are crispy. Serve hot from the casserole dish by spooning the soft bread onto the plate and eating it with a lot of butter.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dipping Sauce for Grilled Shrimp or Chicken

For Fathers' Day today, Rachel took Christina and me to lunch "up on Buford". We concurred, easily, on the "Co'm Grill", an accolade-rich creative Vietnamese restaurant. The weather was hot, being early summer, and something light but tangy suited us all. There was grilled marinated pork in their lucious julienned green mango and apple salad, and grilled shrimp, Rachel's favorite, on cold rice vermicelli and shredded lettuce and herbs. And several of the dishes came with the elegant Vietnamese dipping sauce, "nuoc cham", including the shrimp spring rolls as well as the grilled shrimp on noodles. The salad dressing for our pork-mango-apple salad probably was that sauce, or at least contained it. Co'm Grill makes their nuoc cham somewhat tangier than that at some Vietnamese places, or than I learned to make it years ago from a Vietnamese-French woman.

By the way, as wonderful as I think the Co'm Grill's cooking is, their food is a little different from what I have eaten on my work trips in Vietnam. They create, like a French chef would, from the basis of classical Vietnamese cuisine, and sometimes work in non-traditional produce (like apples and lamb and grape leaves), rather than try simply to reproduce standard dishes. Co'm Grill, however does creative adventurous food, not Americanized versions of Vietnamese food. A Vietnamese-American friend, who in most things is a delightful and agreeable guy, turns up his nose at the Co'm Grill because it isn't "authentic", that is, not like Grandma's. (Chris, I'm exaggerating to make a point.) But in Hanoi, at the family restaurant of a health official I worked with, they are creatively elegant too, and they are not only fully Vietnamese but Party members too. And at Co'm Grill today there were plenty of Vietnamese dining, always a good sign.

Rachel said she would love to make that sauce so she could dip her grilled chicken or shrimp at home and not always have to trot off to Buford Highway for it. So I worked out a variation on my old standby sauce, and after testing and tweeking it I gave her a bottle for her next adventure on the grill. This is a dipping sauce -- or for spooning over a salad or noodles -- and not a marinade. (For marinating shrimp for grilling, thaw from frozen in cool running water, shell [keeping the tail shell on], devein, and marinate briefly in a mixture of lime juice, salt, a little black pepper, and canola oil.)

Asian fish sauce, an essential ingredient in Vietnamese as well as Thai cuisines, and which gives an elegant and non-fishy intensity to the sauces, can be purchased at Asian groceries and in the Asian sections of some supermarkets, as can chili-garlic sauce. For fish sauce, get "Squid" brand or "Tiparos" for Thai style, and "Three Crabs" brand for Vietnamese style. The chili-garlic sauce has a rooster on the label, and is not the "Sambal Oelek", which is a hotter Indonesian-style pepper condiment. Fish sauce keeps without refrigeration, chili-garlic sauce should be refrigerated after opening.

So here is the dipping sauce for Rachel. As a bonus, I added a recipe for a delightful Vietnamese-style salad using the sauce as the dressing.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce in the manner of Co'm Grill Tim

3/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic, peeled and bruised
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon, more or less, chili-garlic sauce

In a stainless steel or enamel pot heat the water, sugar, vinegar, salt, and garlic until it reaches a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the fish sauce and chili-garlic sauce. After 5 minutes, remove the garlic clove.

Let the sauce cool. Store in the refrigerator if not using soon. Serve in a small rice bowl or soup bowl for diners to dip into or to spoon out some onto their noodles.

Bonus recipe: Mixed Vietnamese-style salad
The salad can be served as one of the dishes in the meal, not necessarily as an "appetizer" course. The sauce above, with no oil added, can be used as a salad dressing, using finely julienned (matchstick shape sliced with a knife, not grated) romaine lettuce, onion, green mango (peeled first) or Granny Smith apple (not peeled), and carrot, plus crushed roasted peanuts, and cilantro and mint leaves or small Asian (or standard) basil leaves. Toss the salad together with some of the sauce, above, in a mixing bowl, and check the salt, adding a little if needed. Spoon out onto a serving platter. Garnish with a few more herb leaves.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Summertime and the Grilling is Easy: Simple Marinades

A windfall event recently led to reviving a marinade I sort of learned some years ago. Anna and Andrew received a couple sample veal and lamb chops from a new distributor who wants to become one of our deli's vendors. Andrew asked me for a recipe for veal chops over the grill. I then recalled having veal grilled outdoors in the southern French countryside by the family of our French exchange student, Thomas. In their Mediterranean style, they grilled the wonderful local veal and lamb over a low fire of grape vine prunings from their vineyards and seasoned it with locally produced olive oil, lemon juice, wine, sea salt, and rosemary. But I also recalled Christina's Uncle Clark in Pennsylvania grilling chicken breasts over charcoal and basting them with a mixture of lemon juice, white wine, garlic, and salt. So as summer sets in, as it certainly has in Atlanta (it's 95 degrees outside as I write this), here are several variations on simple marinades and bastes for grilling. These are for the lighter meats, veal -- which Americans rarely eat, lamb, pork, and chicken, but minus the herbs they work for shrimp too. In a later posting, I'll suggest some more strongly seasoned marinades and rubs for steaks, burgers, and kabobs.

In general, marinate the meats with unsalted marinades, and sprinkle the marinated meat with salt just before grilling. Salting meat ahead tends to dry and toughen it. At least some oil is needed for the surface of the meat to grill well and not stick to the rack, but most of it will drip or burn off and not be part of the caloric intake. Wine and lemon (or lime) juice both seem to tenderize the meats as well as impart their subtle flavors. White wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, is best for the lighter meat marinades, while red wine is better with the heavier meats like beef or lamb for kabobs. I much prefer fresh herbs over dry ones, and grilling is one of the few settings where I actually like rosemary, which can otherwise be heavy and dominating. Fresh sage, "salvia" in Italian, is used extensively in northern Italian grilling of chicken, pork, and veal. Personally I'll leave basil and dill (both of which I like) for fish or tomatoes, and oregano for strongly flavored kabobs. Lavender in modest amounts enhances lamb, but it's better to eat fresh lamb in the south of France that has grazed on lavender on the hillsides. Since that fabulous meat will not be available soon for most of us, a little lavender in the marinade (dried is OK) will make grilled lamb elegant. Garlic, which I love, goes best in my view with chicken, although a little in the lamb marinade can be nice, too. Real charcoal, which I rarely have, is the best, but briquettes or gas grilling also work well.

Tim's Marinades for Grilling

Basic Provençal Marinade based on that of Silvie Ménard (sufficient for up to 2 pounds of meat):

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3-inch sprig of fresh rosemary, leaves stripped from the stem and coarsely chopped
(Sprinkle meat with sea salt to taste just before grilling)

Mix ingredients together, other than salt, and marinate meat at least half an hour, preferably a lot longer, turning frequently. Sprinkle moderately with sea salt when putting the meat on the grill. Baste the meat several times during grilling with the leftover marinade.


For chicken marinade, add 1 large or 2 medium cloves of garlic, minced, and 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper; rosemary can be reduced or omitted.

For Florentine marinade for grilled pork or chicken, add 1 medium clove garlic, minced, to the basic recipe, replace rosemary with 1-1/2 tablespoons (lightly packed) of coarsely shredded fresh sage leaves.

For lamb chops, reduce rosemary in the basic recipe to a 2-inch sprig, and add 1/2 teaspoon dry lavender flowers.

For shrimp kabobs (peel and devein freshly defrosted [in cool water] or very fresh medium-large shrimp, keeping the tail shells on; put 3 to 4 shrimp on a bamboo skewer -- skewers boiled in water 5 minutes first to reduce burning on the grill), use 4 tablespoons of either olive oil or melted butter and 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice with no herbs, wine, or garlic. Sprinkle skewered shrimp on both sides lightly with sea salt and with a little black pepper, and let sit for 15 minutes before painting the shrimp generously with the marinade. Let sit another 15 minutes before grilling quickly over fairly high heat. Do not overcook the shrimp, but there should be some surface charring, especially on the tail shells, which is desirable. This is one grilling where real charcoal makes a true difference.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Further Fusion: Smoked Salmon with Grits

Having posted my effort at copying the fabulous shrimp grits that I had at the Watershed, a trendy modern Southern restaurant in Decatur, our neighboring town in the eastern shadows of Atlanta, I wanted to give you an even more fused Southern-and-"other" creation based on grits. But this one is mine, not my steal from another chef.

While I love and seek out local stone-ground grits from Georgia, any "regular" (not "quick") grits will do for the recipe I have below. Grits may sound like banal, if beloved, breakfast food to many Southerners, and foreign and questionable to Northerners, but there are in fact elegant traditional grits dinner dishes in the South (like Shrimp and Grits from the Low Country of the Carolinas and Georgia, and jalapeño-cheese grits casserole from Texas). But modern chefs, at least in the South, are revisiting that country staple and turning grits into up-town fare. I've even had local stone-ground grits ("Red Mule" brand from Athens-Clarke County, ground allegedly by an old red mule ploding round and round turning the grinding stone) infused with truffle oil at "Farm 255", a creative natural-foods restaurant in Athens. So here is my modernized grits offering, Smoked Salmon with Grits, for a (reasonably) light lunch or an appetizer course.

Although I have lived longer in the South than anywhere else, I grew up in New England, then worked overseas for a number of years after that. For me as a child, Northern Europe, where salmon is loved, was represented by Polish and Lithuanian Jews rather than Scandanavians, who had migrated elsewhere. So my introduction to smoked salmon (and to pickled herring for that matter) was at the Jewish delis of my childhood, where "Lox" and "Nova" were the salmon of choice. And mostly went on warm bagels schmeered with cream cheese, and maybe with a slice of red onion and a sprinkle of capers. I've since learned that "lachs, or gravlachs" is simply a name (Swedish in this case) in Scandanavia for cured salmon. Thus the "lox" of deli fame. Lox tends to be fairly salty, so I now go for other smoked salmon, which is readily available and made with farmed Atlantic salmon. I use smoked salmon in a number of ways, including in an "alfredo" sort of pasta dish with peas, but that's another story for another day. The recipe below is a variant of the one I developed to imitate the Shrimp Grits of Watershed.

Here's a smoked salmon grits dish, which makes an excellent, if non-tradional, light lunch (serves 4) or the appetizer course (serves 6) for a dinner. It goes well with a fairly rich cold white wine, such as a Chardonnay. Warm buttered crusty bread -- or a good cornbread, like Virginia spoon bread -- is a great accompaniment, along with a light salad or sliced ripe tomatoes.

Smoked Salmon with Grits Tim

1/2 pound smoked salmon
2-1/2 cups water
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
1-1/4 cups stone ground, or at least "regular" (not "quick"), grits
1 small clove garlic, put through a press or finely minced
4 teaspoons prepared horseradish (or more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
A pinch of black pepper
A pinch cayenne or a large squirt of tobasco sauce
A pinch of nutmeg
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon capers for garnish

Coarsely chop the smoked salmon with a chef's knife, and set aside.

In a heavy pan, bring the water, milk and cream to a gentle boil, and add the grits in a steady stream while stirring the mixture. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer, covered, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan. When the mixture has thickened, add the horseradish, garlic, salt, pepper, cayenne or pepper sauce, nutmeg, and wine, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the grits are reasonably tender, 20-30 minutes depending on the variety used. Set the grits pan in a larger frying pan partly filled with hot water, so the grits stay hot and cook slowly. After the grits are tender (stone-ground grits never become truly soft), stir in the salmon and the butter. Keep hot in the water bath, stirring occasionally, at least 5 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed. Stir in a fresh sprinkle of black pepper. Keep the mixture warm in the water bath until needed.

To serve, spoon out onto a plate, and sprinkle with a small amount of drained capers. A light salad and a glass of crisp cold white wine make a great accompaniment.

Shrimp Grits: Southern Carried to Greatness

It was so stunningly good, I went to the computer as soon as I got home and sketched this out. But it took several weeks before I actually published it, since I needed to test the recipe I imagined before putting it out on the blog.

Having cooked all day in Athens for other people that Saturday, I arrived home in Atlanta in the evening, with family away for the weekend, wanting to eat someone else's cooking. A great local restaurant is Watershed, a mile and a half away in Decatur, an increasingly cool town with increasingly excellent dining. I chose Watershed because I wanted a light meal of a glass of a well-selected wine and a creative appetizer. The executive chef, Scott Peacock, excells in bringing traditional Southern food into the 21st century with a precise hand, classical culinary (read French) training, and excellent balance of flavors. I chose his Shrimp Grits with a grilled slab of bread, and had a delicious cold Vouvray, a Chenin Blanc wine from France's Loire Valley. While that wine is slightly sweet, it was actually great with the amazing shrimp-infused stone-ground grits.

I realize I have some blog readers in Boston, courtesy of Lisa and Jason, so bear with me on the idea of grits. And my apologies if you cannot get excellent North Georgia country stone-ground grits at your neighborhood grocery. (Our deli and market in Athens sells Nora Mills grits and cornmeal from Helen, Georgia, which are hard to beat). But even making this dish with Quaker or Aunt Jemima grits, which you should be able to get (regular, not "quick" grits), you can see why you should spend some quality dining time in Georgia.

I really love shrimp and grits. But I was more familiar with -- and make for catering -- the Low Country Carolina-Georgia style, with a bed of cheese grits under a load of freshly cooked bright orange-pink shrimp and their delicious sauce. Watershed's creamy Shrimp Grits were quite different, more like a shrimp-enhanced risotto made with coarse country grits in place of rice. The waiter went back to the kitchen at my request to check the type of cheese in the grits, and reported back there was no cheese but rather that milk, butter and "shrimp paste" were used. I suspect he did not get the full story, and a clever chef will never give out a few key details. My impression was that, as for risotto, some cream and white wine slipped their way into the grits when no one outside the swinging kitchen door could see. And there may even have been a little Parmesan, but maybe it really was just the milk and butter that did it. At any rate, here's my copy of, or at least my effort at copying, what I relished that evening. And if I can say so, I nailed it.

Unless I'm at the coast, I much prefer still-frozen shrimp (available already shelled and deveined, tails still on, in bags in freezer at the supermarket) to the thawed and often stale and nasty ones at the fish counter. Defrost the quantity you need (allow a little extra weight if you have shells to discard) in cool water just before use, and pat dry with paper towel.

Despite my Vouvray that evening, I recommend a cold crisp Sauvignon Blanc, the sister white grape from the Loire Valley, either as a Sancerre from France (a little pricey in these days of the fat Euro) or as almost any Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (I never had a bad one from there); alternatively a cold Chardonnay from California, Washington State, or Australia would do well. This dish will serve 4 as a light but elegant meal, or 6 as the appetizer course of a larger dinner.

Shrimp Grits after the Manner of Watershed Tim

1/2 pound frozen uncooked (or very fresh) shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tail shells removed
2-1/2 cups water
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
1-1/4 cups stone ground, or at least "regular" (not "quick"), grits
1 small clove garlic, put through a press or finely minced
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
A pinch of black pepper
A pinch cayenne or a large squirt of tobasco sauce
A pinch of nutmeg
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon grated Romano or parmesan cheese

After getting all the shell and vein off the shrimp, rinse them then dry them with paper towels. Finely chop the shrimp with a chef's knife or in a food processor. Set aside.

In a heavy pan, bring the water, milk and cream to a gentle boil, and add the grits in a steady stream while stiring the mixture. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer, covered, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan. When the mixture has thickened, add the garlic, salt, pepper, cayenne or pepper sauce, nutmeg, and wine, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the grits are reasonably tender, 20-30 minutes depending on the variety used. Set the grits pan in a larger frying pan partly filled with hot water, so the grits stay hot and cook slowly. Add the shrimp mixture and butter. Cook together, stirring frequently, at least 5 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed. Stir in the grated cheese and a fresh sprinkle of black pepper. Keep the mixture warm in the water bath until needed.

At the Watershed this went very well with a slice of good crusty bread presented as a long strip buttered and grilled (I suspect on a griddle). A light salad and a glass of crisp cold white wine make a great accompaniment.