Breads and Crackers The Book

166. Skillet Corn Bread p.600

The recipe in The Book is identical to this one on Epicurious, but The Book adds a tablespoon of sugar to the corn bread.

The desire to make corn bread comes in waves for me. Six months will go by, and I won’t even think of it, then I’ll get the urge, and make it three times in a week. I like to play with my recipes, and improvise. The first batch of the week is usually pretty straightforward, in a baking pan, hardly sweet, good with gravy. Then I get stupid and try putting things that shouldn’t go into corn bread into my recipe. I’ve never once liked the cheese or sausage corn bread I’ve made, and I don’t particularly like corn bread muffins, I should just learn my lesson. I make the third batch to redeem myself. By this point I’ve remembered how much I like leftover corn bread for breakfast, and that I really like it warmed for a few seconds in the microwave, with a bit of butter, and a drizzle of maple syrup. I substitute maple syrup for the sugar in the recipe, and add a bit of extra butter directly to the batter for the week’s final batch, and I am usually well pleased. By the time we’ve finished that pan, I’m so ODed on corn bread that I can’t look at it for another few months.

This recipe takes the unusual step of omitting the flour that’s in most corn bread recipes, it’s all cornmeal. That makes the bread more coarse and granular, and less cake-like. The nice thing about corn bread is that it’s fairly idiot-proof. You just whisk together the dry ingredients, gently stir in the wet ingredients until it’s barely combined, and bake. This bread is baked in a preheated cast iron pan, and the butter that goes into the bread is melted in the pan first, this leaves you with a browned butter coating in the pan, which tastes nice, and helps keep the bread from sticking. The recipe uses the muffin method, of barely combining the wet and dry ingredients, which is usually done to prevent gluten from forming, and making a baked good tough. In this case there’s no flour, so I can’t see why you shouldn’t beat the tar out of it.

This was perfectly fine corn bread, I liked the cast iron skillet method which created a very nice deeply browned crust. This was a dryer style of corn bread than I prefer, and even with the tablespoon of sugar, I would have liked a bit more sweetness. I found it a bit crumbly, and missed the soft texture of a flour based corn bread. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it, and it’s probably somebody’s favourite style. As a recipe I think it worked quite well, I just wasn’t totally on board with what it was trying to do.

Poultry The Book

125. Chicken with Cornmeal Dumplings p.373

The recipe

I had The Book for a while before I started The Project, and this was one of the recipes I used regularly before The Book and I got serious. Making it again emphasized how much The Project has changed my cooking style. The biggest difference is that I actually read the recipe this time around, and it came out much better.

You start by breaking a chicken down into serving sized pieces, browning them, and then simmering them with white wine and shallots ’till the pieces are cooked through. Meanwhile you put together a dumpling dough with flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, butter, chives, parsley, and buttermilk. The chicken is moved to the oven, and the juices left in the skillet are fortified with stock, cream, salt, and pepper. Once this gravy is simmering the dumplings are gently dropped in and allowed to cook for about 15 minutes, then it’s time to eat.

This time around the cooking went well, there wasn’t anything too tricky about it. In previous attempts I’ve managed to really mess things up. The biggest lesson I learned is that the cooking vessel the recipe calls for really is important. In the recipe all of this happens in a deep 12 inch heavy skillet, I don’t have one of those (but if Santa got my letter…), so I used to make it in a 5 quart pot. It seemed like a pretty decent substitution at the time, but I was wrong. Getting the dumplings right depends on the depth of liquid they’re simmered in, too deep and they disintegrate, or raft together into one super-dumpling. This time I used a 10 quart oval dutch oven, which has a similar surface area to a 12 inch skillet, and things worked out. The other lesson I’ve learned is the difference between a simmer and boil. Previously I had my gravy boiling away, and the bubbles tore my dumplings to shreds, a gentle simmer with just the occasional bubble reaching the surface is the way to go. I’m kind of amazed that I made this recipe about five times trying to get it right, and I didn’t pick up on what I was doing wrong.

My previous attempts also fell prey to my undiagnosed culinary dyslexia.I constantly mix up shallots and scallions, I have the hardest time keeping them straight. They’re very different, but it’s a coin toss as to which vegetable I’ll imaging when I hear one of those words. I’m embarrassed to say that I have the same problem with elevators and escalators, weird eh? Long simmered scallions turn kind of yellow and gross, I wouldn’t recommend the substitution. Some practice with The Book has made me sensitive to my neurological condition, so now I double check that my shopping list corresponds to the ingredient list.

My standards for what constitutes a successful recipe have also changed over the course of The Project. In the pre-Project days this came out reasonably well a couple of times, and I was quite impressed by it. I still love the dumplings, and I’d be happy to make them again and again, but the chicken is lacking, and the whole dish is bland. I’ve ranted about chicken skin and wet cooking methods several times, and it was just as unappealing here as in every other dish. The chicken is poached in white wine and shallots, which is fine, but the addition of another herb would be nice, maybe thyme, rosemary, or tarragon. The chicken gives up flavour and interest for the sake of the dumplings, and it’s almost a fair trade. The dumplings have an excellent texture and flavour, they pull in loads of chicken flavour, and have a wonderful buttermilk tang. They’re absolutely the highlight of the dish. I’d rather skip the whole chicken making part of this dish, and just make the dumplings in a stock based gravy. The chicken would be better served by being simply grilled, then served along with the dumplings. Doing something about the beige on beige colour pallet would be nice too.

Maybe I’m being a bit unfair. This dish is a Southern classic, but I have no clue what it’s supposed to taste like. I don’t have any reference point, so I’m probably trying to turn this dish into something it was never meant to be. Using a chicken like this allows a little bit of meat to be stretched into a hearty meal, so there are perfectly good reasons for recipes like this to have developed. And, Its blandly fatty simplicity is what comfort food is all about, but it’s not really my thing these days.

Pre-Project me liked this dish because the dumplings are awesome, but also because it’s essentially a one pot dish, it’s quite inexpensive, not too hard, and it makes good leftovers. Present day me doesn’t mind working a little harder, spending a little more, or using a few more dishes (much to my dining companion’s chagrin) for a better dish. I agree with my former self about the dumplings though.

Grains and Beans The Book

100. Creamy Parmesan Polenta p.265

No recipe for this one, but the proportions are the same as the Basic Polenta recipe, with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano stirred in at the end.

I’m not really clear on why this recipe needed to be a recipe at all, it could easily have been some optional additions at the bottom of the Basic Polenta recipe. The recipes are identical, except that this one only makes 4 cups, whereas the basic recipe makes 10.

I love that basic polenta recipe, it works flawlessly and doesn’t take much effort. The addition of a bit of butter in this version is a definite improvement. It helps to smooth the polenta out, and amp up the creamy texture. This recipe calls for a lot of cheese, the proportions are 3 cups water, 3/4 cup polenta, and 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a rare day that I say something had too much cheese in it, but honestly you could have cut it in half. I don’t think the second half cup did much to make the dish taste cheesier, it just added a lot of salt. I really like a bit of cheese stirred into my polenta, but this was excessive.

I served this polenta along with the Chinese-Hawaiian ribs from yesterday. They’re both variations on southern classics, what’s better than barbecued ribs and grits? unfortunately both dishes were different enough from the original I was hoping to emulate that they didn’t go particularly well together. The polenta was intensely salty, and the ribs were overwhelmingly salty and sweet. Together they were too much. I think serving this polenta alongside a more mildly flavoured side, perhaps some stewed vegetables, or a pot-roast, would have showed it off to better advantage.

After a night in the fridge the polenta firmed up and set beautifully. I was able to cut the leftovers into a few slices, and crisp them up in a skillet. The outsides of the slices turned a deep brown and formed a crunchy lattice of melted Parmesan. The centre regained all the creamy runniness of the night before. We had them with poached eggs, fresh fruit, and a macchiato. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer weekend breakfast. This second application showed off how good this dish could really be. It just goes to show that making a delicious dish isn’t enough, pairing your foods correctly is just as important.

Grains and Beans The Book

80. Broiled Polenta with Tomato Sauce p.266

The recipe

This recipe uses The Book’s Basic Polenta recipe as it’s main ingredient. The basic polenta is a great no-fail staple recipe. Here it’s dressed up by stirring in some cheese, putting it under the broiler, and topping with a very simple tomato sauce.

I served this as part of a vegetarian dinner. It was nicely substantial, and made a good centerpiece for my menu. Very often polenta is served straight from the pot, so that it’s thick but still runny, which highlights the risotto like creamless creaminess. Here the polenta is poured into a baking dish and allowed to cool and set up before it goes under the broiler. This gives it a completely different texture, it ends up gelled and reminiscent of a rice or bread pudding. In this application it seems much more substantial, which is a better base for a sauce. Putting a sauce on a custardy plate of fresh polenta might be a little unidimensional on the texture front.

The recipe calls for fontina to be stirred into the hot polenta. I don’t think I’ve ever used or tasted fontina, and I didn’t use it here. I substituted a mixture of mozzarella and cheddar, and called it good enough. It browned up nicely, and melted seamlessly into the polenta, so it seems like a fair substitution to me.

The tomato sauce was extremely simple, perhaps too simple. The sauce is nothing but softened onions, a bit of garlic, a can of tomatoes, salt, pepper, and a pointless dash of parsley. I’m writing this in August when the local tomato crop is at it’s peak, and it seems like the less you do to them the better everything ends up. I made this sauce in April, using canned tomatoes, when charms of a minimalist sauce aren’t quite as beguiling. I’ve got nothing against canned tomatoes, they’re much more flavorful than the mealy, flavourless, perfectly red, imported California tomatoes we get in April. But, they can’t compare to the hight of summer’s flavour. If you’re going to do a slow cooked sauce based on canned tomatoes I think a bit of flavouring is important. I would definitely have added a bay leaf to the sauce, and thyme or oregano wouldn’t have hurt anything at all, a splash of vodka would bring out those flavourful alcohol soluble compounds in the tomatoes, and a hint of fire from a chile or red pepper flakes wouldn’t have been unwelcome. Once the sauce was finished I tasted it and stirred in some fresh rosemary, which really improved things.

This dish was fine, but a better concept than execution. It started with a really excellent polenta base, but didn’t do enough to it. The addition of cheese and time under the broiler added great flavour and texture, but the lackluster sauce was at best a missed opportunity, and at worst dragged the dish down. There’s a huge amount of room to play and experiment with a dish like this. It’s rare that I accuse The Book of being too simple, or lacking in obscure ingredients, but this is one of those times.

Grains and Beans The Book

36. Basic Polenta p.264

the recipe

The linked recipe differs from The Books version in the cooking directions. The linked version would have us standing there stirring the polenta for 40 minutes, which is enough to get me to give up on polenta forever. Fortunately The Book’s version is kinder, we’re only asked to stir 1 minute out of every 10 for 40 minutes, leaving it covered when it’s not being stirred.

This isn’t the flashiest polenta in the world, but as the title implies it’s a very solid basic. Restaurant polenta (and grits for that matter) are often an excuse to hide half a pound of butter and a giant brick of parmigiano-reggiano in an unassuming package. All that’s in this basic version is water, cornmeal, and salt. As you might expect the earthy corn flavour is prominent. It’s not as delicious as the dressed up versions, but your waistline will thank you. Because there’s so little in there it’s also very neutrally flavoured, and makes an excellent base for sauces and gravies. I recently served braised chipotle pork-hocks on a bed of this polenta, and I couldn’t have asked for a better combination.

The most important thing about a “basic” recipe is that it work flawlessly. This is a rock solid method. I’ve made whole batches, half batches, and quarter batches, without changing the method at all. It comes out perfectly every time, and making it doesn’t take up too much of mine.

Breakfast and Brunch The Book

27. Whole-Grain Pancakes p.646

Sorry, no recipe this time.

These were really really good pancakes. They’re made with whole wheat flour and cornmeal so they have a more grown up flavour and toothsome texture than than Aunt Jamima (not that I’d be caught dead making that stuff). They were kept light and fluffy by baking powder, and beaten egg whites. I was doing these up at my friend’s island (no power, limited kitchen gadgets) and found myself trying to whip egg whites to stiff peaks without an electric mixer, without a whisk, but with as many forks as I could desire. I spent about 1/2 hour going at the whites, and I can say that they foamed and lightened in colour, but try as I might I just couldn’t get them properly whipped. I folded in my vaguely foamy whites, and hoped for the best. Apparently this recipe has the advantage of being somewhat idiot proof too. They came out nicely fluffy, and not at all heavy or dense as whole wheat baking sometimes tends to.

An interesting note about this recipe is that it calls for oil in the batter and for the skillet, and only recommends butter as a topping. I would have thought that butter based pancakes would beat out oil based every time, but these were great just as they were. It’d be interesting to see if they could be improved by replacing some of the oil with butter.

I think I’ve found my new stand-by griddle cake. I love a cornmeal pancakes, and this recipe hit the nail on the head. It managed to combine the moist-fluffy-tender aspects of a white flour pancake with the hearty-nutty-textured virtues of whole grains and cornmeal. Perfect.