Monthly Archives: June 2010

Hot Water Cornbread

This post is for the America Day event hosted by Casey at Eating, Gardening & Living in Bulgaria.

What is American food?  I have asked several people this question recently, and invariably received the same answer.  “Hamburgers”.  Some would then furrow their brow and slowly list some other comfort foods: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, pot roast.

I love hamburgers, and I love traditional American comfort foods.  But I think our cuisine is so much more than these.  It’s fast food, processed food, convenience stores and factory farms.  But it is also regional specialties like grits or barbeque or lobster or po’ boys or biscuits that mean home and belonging.  It is various ethnic foods that immigrants have brought with them, and Native American foods like corn and beans, and endless fusions of those styles of cooking.  It is truck stops and all night cafes, but it is also cutting edge chefs working with seasonal, local ingredients.

In the end, it seems to me that what American food really means is what Mom used to make, or Grandma and Grandpa or Uncle Joe.  It is about comfort and familiarity and love.  It may be different for each of us, but we know it when we taste it–or even when we just smell it.  American food stirs deep memories, inspires great loyalties, soothes frayed nerves, cures colds, and is even the subject of impassioned debates about the best hamburgers or whether apple pie should be served with cheese. (It should. Cheddar.)

Because it isn’t just food, it’s where we came from.  It’s the smell of Thanksgiving turkey roasting in the oven when you walk in out of the cold after a long flight home for the holiday.  It’s the chalky little mints that Grandma always kept in a dish on the counter next to the phone.  It’s your mother’s special casserole, your father’s grilled ribs, the particular kind of chicken soup you got when you were sick as a child.

If I had to choose one food that is the most American of all, it would be corn.  Corn, in all its many forms, is such a quintessentially American food.  And cornbread has been served since this country was founded.  It is simple, filling and nourishing.  Baked or fried, sweet or savory, it seems that every family has a favorite recipe.

On Sunday, Michael got out his Grandfather’s skillet, and made Hot Water Cornbread.  This is a beloved food that he ate as a child on visits to his grandparents.  He remembers his Grandfather making the cornbread, and how good it was–hot and crisp and fresh.  We built a meal around it, with fried catfish and black-eyed peas, but the Hot Water Cornbread was the star.

It is important to note that Hot Water Cornbread is made by feel, rather than by precise measurements.  Start with “about a cup” of cornmeal and you will end up with 7-8 corn patties.

Hot Water Cornbread

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 Tbsp all purpose flour, more or less
  • approx 1 tsp salt
  • about 1 cup of boiling water
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Mix first three ingredients, then add boiling water while stirring, until dough forms stiff clumps.  Allow dough to cool just sufficiently to handle.  Dip hands in cold water, then take balls of dough and form into flattened patties about 4 inches across (like making hamburgers!).

In a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, heat enough oil to partially cover the corn patties.  When oil is hot, fry patties quickly, turning after a few minutes.  The patties of Hot Water Cornbread should be crisp and browned on the outside.  Drain on paper towels and serve while still hot.

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Orecchiette with Morel Cream Sauce

The morels are here.  Not the dried ones, good though they are, but the fresh mushrooms, dark and nubbly Black Morels like little damp pine cones, foraged from the woods of Washington.  When they arrive at the market, it is time to seize the moment, to work from ingredients to recipe, and not the other way around.

Morels have such an intense, earthy, mushroomy taste that they demand star billing.  They are frankly wasted in a supporting role.  You really can’t go wrong just slicing, sautéing in butter, and serving them with a hunk of French bread.  But I think that a bit of cream really releases the full on, hit-you-between-the-eyes scent and flavor of the morels.

This recipe came together spontaneously after a fortuitous trip to the market.  At each step in cooking process, the intensity of the aroma steps up a notch—as the mushrooms hit the sauté pan, and again with each reduction.  It is as much an olfactory experience as gustatory.  The silky cream sauce coats the pasta and every bite is infused with the depth and complexity of the morels.

This makes an excellent main dish with a salad on the side, or a side dish that will complement freshly grilled fish or chicken.


Any good-quality pasta in a shape that holds sauce well will work for this recipe, but I have a deep and abiding fondness for the “little ears”.

Orecchiette with Morel Cream Sauce and Peas

(serves 4)

  • 8 oz Orecchiette or other small pasta
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
  • 1 oz fresh morels, diced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp finely minced shallots
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon thyme
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
  • ¾ cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Parmigiano reggiano cheese, shredded

Bring large pot of salted water to boil and cook pasta.

Meanwhile, for sauce: Clean and dice morels.  In a 1-quart saucepan, add the olive oil and butter and saute the diced morels, shallots, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper over medium-high heat for about 1 minute. Add the broth and cook until reduced, about 5 minutes. Add the heavy cream and cook gently until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Toss with pasta and peas.  Top with plentiful amounts of parmigiano reggiano.

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Two seemingly unrelated events happened at around the same time: Michael’s parents were settling in to a new house in Savannah, and Ruhlman wrote a blog post entitled How To Make Grits.  That  post was also part of the impetus for my learning to poach eggs.  The grits took a little longer.

I’ve had grits before, and frankly wasn’t all that impressed.  They were more or less Cream of Wheat, with less flavor and more texture.  They weren’t bad, mind you—they weren’t distinct enough to be deemed either good or bad.  I have just never understood why Southerners are so attached to them with so many better starch options readily available.  Toast!  Pancakes!   Oatmeal!  Bagels!  Really, folks!  Well, actually I do understand nostalgic comfort food, but grits don’t happen to be on my list.

Still, the idea percolated.  “Be sure to find good grits,” Ruhlman admonished, “not instant grits or any grits in a box from a big food company.”  Maybe when I tried the real thing, I’d understand.  After all, the difference between whole rolled oats and instant oatmeal is considerable, so why shouldn’t the right grits make all the difference?  I kept an eye open at the grocery store, but all I saw were instant grits, which clearly would not do.

But we had a source in Savannah now.  Last week Michael called to say, “You’ve got a little present from my mom here!”  The dear woman had sent a bag of Charleston Favorites (est. 1670) yellow stone ground grits–a cunning little gunnysack of Southitude, all ready and waiting.

One of the challenges of non-instant grits is the cooking time.  I do not wake up all bright and bushy-tailed, ready to spend half an hour or more stirring grits before I get breakfast inside of me.  Of such things are bad mornings made.  I decided to follow Ruhlman’s lead, and cook them the night before.  After 30 minutes of simmering, the grits were a smooth creamy yellow porridge.  I stirred in a handful of shredded cheddar cheese, some leftover diced chorizo, a few pinches of salt, covered the saucepan, and left the grits in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, as Michael made scrambled eggs and bacon, I peeled the solid hunk of cold grits from the saucepan, cut it into wedges, and fried the wedges in a little oil and a lot of butter.  They sputtered like super-charged miniature popcorn, sending bits of hot grit everywhere until I clapped a lid on them.

The finished product was delicious, something like baked polenta with a golden brown fried crust.   The mild corn flavor of the grits made an excellent vehicle for the more dominant flavors of the cheese and spicy sausage.


Grits with Chorizo and Cheese

  • 1 ½ cups grits
  • ½ cup cheddar cheese, shredded
  • ½ cup diced chorizo, or other cooked sausage
  • ½ tsp salt
  • butter and oil for frying

Cook grits according to package directions.  When grits are done cooking, stir in cheese, sausage, and salt.  Cover and chill overnight.  Turn out cold grits onto a cutting board  and cut into four wedges.  Fry in a non-stick pan with butter and oil over medium heat for approximately 5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

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Sea Beans

Sea beans.  What are they?  They definitely aren’t beans.  Are they even from the sea?  They are little green twiggy things that look like a cross between coral and Lilliputian asparagus.  They appear every now and then, on the menu of a restaurant—the kind of restaurant that prides itself on local, seasonal ingredients.  I enjoy them when they do appear– a bright green, salty, crunchy pile of freshness alongside my entrée.

I have never seen them in the grocery store, but last weekend a wicker basket of sea beans was on display at Foraged & Found Edibles at the UW Farmer’s Market, alongside the mushrooms.

I scooped up a little bag of them, and as he weighed them I asked the vendor, 1) What the heck are sea beans?  and, 2) Do they really come from the sea?  He explained that they are a plant that grows wild near the ocean—he picked them amongst the dune grasses on the shore.  They are found in the summer, mostly in June and July.

From the internet, I found that sea beans are also known as samphire, glasswort, pickle plant, pousse-pied, and salicornia.  These names conjure up visions of a wise woman humming to herself, bent to her task of foraging, stopping every now and then to tuck something into the bag at her waist.  She will return later to her kitchen to boil up cauldrons of mysterious remedies—for corns, indigestion, prickly rashes and broken hearts…

Anyhoo…what sea beans most assuredly are is delicious.  If you live in the Pacific Northwest, or another coastal area, keep your eyes open at the Farmer’s Market for sea beans these next few weeks.

Sea Bean Preparation:

Rinse the sea beans thoroughly, then steam in a sauté pan with water or stock for about 10 minutes.  Allow the liquid to evaporate, then sauté the sea beans in a small amount of olive oil and butter, with minced shallots or a bit of garlic.  Season with freshly ground pepper to taste, but they will not need added salt.  No, do not top the sea beans with coarse kosher salt just because it looks so pretty (Ahem).  Serve alongside meat, fish, or pasta as you would asparagus or green beans.


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Coppa.   Basquese.  Prosciutto Culatello.  Fleur de Sel caramels.  And a wedge of fudgy cake.  It’s nearly poetry, isn’t it?  Yes, and it’s also the contents of a bag I received as a gift recently.  A fragrant, intoxicating, magical gift.  I pulled out the butcher-paper wrapped packages of charcuterie and pressed them to my nose, inhaling deeply as my friend Rob explained that he had picked up this treasure trove at a nearby store called Picnic, and there were little signs with information about the provenance of the food items, so he thought the meat would be within my comfort zone for ethical farming practices.  I could have cried just a little right then, cradling the meat in my arms as the utter sweetness and thoughtfulness of the whole thing sunk in.

I was filled with a primitive urge to tear the packages open with my teeth and bolt the contents like a hungry wolf after the kill, scattering shreds of waxed paper.  I resisted however.  I wanted to wait, get some bread and cheese for sandwiches, to do this right.

Later, when I arrived at Michael’s place with the goods, he also took a deep sniff and smiled.  “This takes me back,” was all he said, but I knew what he meant.  Last summer, we spent two weeks travelling through Spain.  When we first arrived in Barcelona, punch-drunk from jet lag, we sat down at an outdoor café in a sunny square and ordered a plate of assorted meats and manchego cheese.  And then we ate salty, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth cured pork at least once a day for the rest of that trip.

We had thin-sliced, salty jamon in outdoor restaurants.  We ate a memorable  racion of heaped-up meats, cheese, and a few rough-torn hunks of bread served on a wooden platter at a street festival in Pamplona. And bocadillos (baguette sandwiches) stuffed with different combinations of meats, purchased from vendors or made ourselves, for picnics or on trains or just to fortify ourselves until the restaurants opened up for dinner at 9:00 pm.  The smell of that bag stirred a deep sense-memory that included red wine, sunshine, street performers, the hot ancient Roman stones of Toledo, the dust and sweat and adrenaline of Pamplona, the gritty salt tang of the Costa del Sol, and the Rock of Gibraltar appearing on the horizon.

We opened the packages to reveal the meats, sliced tissue paper-thin and stacked on waxed paper.  Deep marbled red, purple, and translucent pink, we peeled the meats from their papers like leaves of a precious papyrus manuscript.  Once the cheese and bread were sliced, we couldn’t bear to turn that meat into sandwiches.  We laid it all out on plates, to sample at will until our fingers and lips were sheened with fat.  We were full beyond belief, fat and happy but still nibbling, unable to stop.  The flavors of the meats exploded in the mouth, the fat so delicate that it melted without chewing.  And when we couldn’t eat anymore, we ate the cake.

I had to see for myself, so I took a little field trip the other day.  Picnic is a wonderful store–a den of delights, with walls of wine, tables stacked with truffles and condiments, and a cold case of meats and cheeses.  I ordered the Charcuterie Plate to go, and enjoyed myself browsing while the meat was cut to order.  Picnic isn’t a store for when one is in a hurry, but rather for a a place for peaceful anticipatory contemplation as one’s order is lovingly assembled. 

Salame feline, sopressata, basquese, a chunk of pate.  Also included were some mustard, cornichons, pickled onion, and several slices of baguette.  A feast.  And like all of the finest feasts it was simple, elemental, and best shared with loved ones.


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