Nothin’ Beats Beans,Greens and my Mom’s Cornbread

Just picked Russian kale and collards.

Just picked Russian kale and collards.

To use my Dad’s phrase, today I had a cravin’ flung on me. A craving for beans, greens and cornbread and the cornbread had to be the lacy-edged fried kind. It’s made from a batter consisting of cornmeal, salt and water and cooked on the stove top in a thin layer of vegetable oil until the edges are lacy, crispy and brown. That’s what cornbread meant to me as a child. The other kind of cornbread we ate was oven-baked and contained cornmeal, eggs, salt and baking powder and soda. My grandmother called it egg bread to distinguish it from the skillet type. Generally, we used yellow cornmeal for the egg bread and white fine-ground for the skillet type. Both were stone ground and neither of the cornbreads contained sugar.

I decided to go right to the source and called Mom. She’s been making cornbread for 60+ years and knows her stuff. My folks love the holy trinity of beans, greens and cornbread and accepted an invitation to dinner almost before I got the words out of my mouth! A few hours later while the fellows devoured a bowl of black-pepper pistachios, Mom and I got down to business. I’m lucky to have a local source for yellow  stone ground cornmeal from heirloom corn. It’s ground fairly fine so was suitable for this recipe, even though it’s yellow.

IMG_2838The bad news is that we don’t measure anything in this three ingredient recipe except the cornmeal. Mom does it by feel. I think you can too. We mixed two cups of fine stone ground cornmeal with 3-4 generous pinches of salt and added water until the mixture started to look more like batter than dough. Then we added a splash more liquid so the batter would spread in the hot oil. We tasted the batter to check the salt level and added a little more. Salt is a personal thing so do what seems right to you. Since this was a new cornmeal to Mom, we did a test batch and then cooked the whole batch. In the old days, we used a cast iron skillet, but today it was ceramic non-stick.

Mix the cornmeal and salt with a fork. That's my Mom!

Mix the cornmeal and salt with a fork. That’s my Mom!

The batter takes shape.

The batter takes shape.

Check out those edges!

Check out those edges!

The vegetable oil should be about 1/8 inch thick in the pan. When it’s good and hot, drop in a very tiny bit of batter. If it doesn’t crisp up pretty quickly, turn up the heat. Eat the sample and check for salt level. For the full-sized sample, drop about 1/4-1/3 cup of batter into the oil. It should spread some so that the edges become irregular and lacy. Add more water to the remaining batter if this doesn’t happen. Be patient and let it sizzle for a while. Mom only turns hers once, but that takes some practice. When it looks pretty solid, carefully turn the cornbread and cook the other side. It should be brown and crispy when done. Drain on paper towels and serve.

IMG_2846The cornbread was the perfect complement to the rest of the dinner: pinto beans, greens cooked all afternoon, sliced tomatoes and white rice. Condiments included chopped onion for the beans and hot-peppers in vinegar (made last summer) for the greens. We ate on the screened porch and it was good! Then we took our full selves out to tour the garden and visit the chickens. Finally, we headed for the front porch rocking chairs to watch the sunset. No dessert required.

Thanks, Mom.

 

Sister’s Pie-panic Calmed by Onion & Lemon Sponge Pies!

Guyere, onion and mushroom pies

Guyere, onion and mushroom pies

Pie seems ever present in my life recently. All the pie chat moved my sister, Mary, to face her personal Pie-panic and she asked for my help. It takes a brave woman to face pie fear and I was confident that we could have a homemade-crust breakthrough!

We got together on a Saturday afternoon for the Pie-panic therapy session. She requested an onion, mushroom and gruyere savory pie. Lemon sponge pie seemed like a great idea for dessert. We made two of each single-crust pie so that we could feed our parents and spouses that night. The evening was a big hit and I expect we will do it again before too long. We just have to let the cholesterol clear a bit since there is a stick of butter in each single crust. Luckily, Mary brought some excellent red wines that may have offset some of it. And had large servings of a delightful green salad and served fresh berries on the lemon sponge pie to redeem ourselves.

photoThere were a couple of snafus along the way.  The first was leaving my student unsupervised. Somehow, in a matter of  minutes, an extra cup of flour ended up in the mix. Measuring distraction can happen to anyone, especially when you’re doubling a recipe, but since this dinner had a friendly audience, we decided to forge ahead. A little extra water and butter saved the day.  Then I realized that one of my four pie plates was at a friend’s house on the other side of town. While the dough chilled, I popped down to nearby Weaverville to get one. Mary sliced all the onions for the savory pies while I was gone. Here’s Sister’s take on the Pie-panic session and the onion slicing tips I gave her.

Our goal, bringing Pie-panic to the surface and then sinking it for good, was accomplished. The crust was much crisper and less flaky than usual but in spite of that, the resulting dinner was top-notch. As society columnists in small Southern newspapers used to say : “A good time was had by all.” I just love that phrase. Sums things up nicely doesn’t it?

So let’s get down to the recipes. My pie crust mantra is keep it cold, keep it cold, keep it cold!.  There’s a great basic crust that works for sweet or savory pie that I adapted slightly from the Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. It’s simple, super flaky and easy to handle. It’s my go to crust. For the onion filling, I checked out a bunch of recipes. Some were too elaborate, some were too bland and none seemed perfect. So I just used my noggin and made one up. Lemon sponge pie recipes are everywhere. It’s an old-fashioned pie so lots have accumulated over the years. It tastes almost like lemon bars but creamier and a nice brown crust that develops on top as it bakes. Yum!  Don’t forget my pie crust tips.

Enjoy your pie dinner!

Dana’s Plate Go To Pie Crust (adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen Cookbook)

(makes one double or two single crust pies)

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups of flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon table salt

2 sticks chilled unsalted butter (8 ounces or 1 cup)

Steps

  1. Cut the chilled butter into 1/2 inch cubes and place in the fridge for a few minutes. In a large, wide bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Retrieve the cold butter pieces and scatter over the dry mixture. Using a pastry blender or two table knives, cut the butter into the flour until the largest pieces are the size of small to medium peas.  Variation in size is a good thing.
  2. If the butter has warmed up, refrigerate for 10 minutes. Drizzle the ice water over the flour-butter mixture and uses a plastic or floured wood spatula to stir it together just until a ragged lump is formed. Then use your hands to knead the dough a few times, incorporating any loose bits as you go. Working quickly so that the dough stays cool, form the mass into a ball.
  3. Divide the dough in half and wrap each half in plastic wrap. Flatten the wrapped dough into discs. Refrigerate for at least an hour and up to a week. To freeze, add another layer of wrap or place in a resealable plastic bag for up to two months. To use, defrost in the fridge for a day.
  4. Generously sprinkle flour over your counter or other rolling surface and the rolling pin. Unwrap a disc (leave the other in the fridge until you need it). Place it on the floured surface and sprinkle more flour on top. Instead of rolling out this very hard disc, whack it a dozen times with a floured rolling pin. Lift and rotate the dough after every couple of whacks. If the dough sticks, use a bench scraper or spatula to get the dough off the surface and sprinkle the surface with more flour. If the dough gets soft, scape it onto a cookie sheet or piece of plastic wrap and get it back into the fridge for up to 10 minutes. You’ll have a larger flat disc after the whacking. Flour the pin again and roll, lift and rotate the dough until it reaches the desired size and shape according to your recipe.

 

Savory Onion and Gruyere Pie

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 large onion halved root to stem end and thinly sliced in the same direction

8 ounces sliced mushrooms

1/4 cup wine (white, marsala or madeira)

One teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

salt and pepper

6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated coarsely

Pastry for a single crust pie

Steps

  1. Add olive oil and butter to a large skillet or wide dutch oven and melt the butter. Add all the onions and stir to coat with oil/butter mixture. Continue to cook over moderate heat, covered, for about ten minutes until the onions are softened. Stir a couple of times. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the onions are browned and very soft. Add a splash of water if the onions begin to stick. This will take 45-60 minutes. After 30 minutes, add the sliced mushrooms, thyme, salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 375.
  2. Add the wine to the browned onion mixture and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat.
  3. Roll out your pie crust to 1/8 inch and transfer to a 9 1/2 inch glass pie pan. Trim crust overhang to one inch and turn under itself. Crimp or finish crust edge as desired. Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork several times.
  4. Line the crust with foil and fill will dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes, remove the foil and weights and cook about five minutes longer. The crust should be golden brown. Cover the edge with foil or a crust guard if it starts to get too brown.
  5. Spread 2/3 of the Gruyere into the crust and cover with the onion mixture. Sprinkle the remaining Gruyere on top of the onions.
  6. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until cheese is melted and onions are sizzling. Let the pie cool for 10 minutes before cutting into wedges.

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A Simple Garden Dinner

Sunday night, after socializing on the 4th, 5th and 6th of July, we had a simple supper at home. Just the two of us and some veggies from the garden.  We’ve had more than twenty inches of rain in two months so the plants are really happy. The summer squash grew so quickly, it was like watching time-lapse photography! The dinosaur kale hasn’t slowed down since the mercury has stayed at or below 80 on most days. There’s a bountiful crop so far. Here’s how the veggie dinner came together.

Lacinato or dinosaur kale and summer squash fresh from the garden.

Lacinato, or dinosaur kale, and summer squash fresh from the garden.

The KALE leaves were mostly tender so I rolled stacks of them long ways and sliced across the roll into half-inch ribbons. A few leaves had big stems so I chopped them in half-inch pieces too. The kale went into an inch of salted water and braised for 20 minutes with the lid on. Then I uncovered it, let the liquid cook away and finished it with a squeeze of lemon juice and a few red pepper flakes.

For the SQUASH, Barb Swell inspired me with her Log Cabin Cooking blog. Her parmesan-fried summer squash is a quick, easy and nearly perfect dish for one or two people. It tastes almost like a southern squash casserole without the extra fat and prep time. This squash was so good I wanted it all for myself. Paul is lucky he saw any of it!

Parmesan shards for the squash

Parmesan shards for the squash

Then there were the FINGERLING POTATOES, earthy and delicious, from friends John and Melissa’s Highgate Farm up the road in Marshall. John is a regular at the Weaverville and East Asheville tailgate markets and always has lots of great naturally grown produce.

Here’s a simple method for cooking fingerlings. I believe it’s French in origin.  For two servings, add a tablespoon of butter, a good splash of olive oil and a healthy pinch of salt to a small to medium dutch oven and set over medium heat. When the oil/butter is good and hot, add enough fingerlings for two people. Give them a stir to coat and cover.

Earthy fingerlings from Highgate Farm

Earthy fingerlings from Highgate Farm

Just a few more minutes of browning to go!

Just a few more minutes of browning to go!

Try not to peek for at least 10 minutes, 15 if you’re strong. Then stop by every 4-5 minutes and give the pan a few good shakes to turn the potatoes and prevent sticking. Use your kitchen timer if you tend to get distracted. Do a fork test around 20 minutes for doneness. Adjust the heat as needed for browning. Total time depends on the size and number of potatoes, but estimate 20-30 minutes for two servings. Magically, the little fellows will cook in their own juices (with a little help from the butter). If you’re patient, they will be creamy on the inside and crispy-brown on the outside. You can add a dash of lemon juice, a few chopped chives or a grind of pepper to them on the plate, but it’s not really necessary.

You can make these for a crowd. Add a bit more oil, butter and salt, but don’t go crazy. The potatoes release a fair amount of liquid as they cook. And use a larger dutch oven. Surface area is important here. A double layer is fine if you’re very good about shaking to rotate the potatoes. Otherwise, they will steam but the top layer won’t brown. Stir them if you have to and allow more cooking time. Be sure to use a thick bottomed pot, preferably cast iron, for this recipe. I use Creuset. You can use any potato cut into a large dice if you don’t have fingerlings. These taters are so good, you could make a meal of them!

Our dinner was heavenly. Sometimes after a hectic weekend, simple pleasures really are the best.

P.S. Paul is away tonight and I picked a squash today. Guess what I’m having for my solo supper!

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