Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 3 - Chorizo Cornbread

After a week off from the cornbread trials, we got back into the swing of things full force this weekend. We had poured through old issues of Gourmet, and came across an obligatory Thanksgiving issue that featured a chorizo/cornbread stuffing. We didn't really have any use for stuffing, but thought it might not be a bad idea to have a chorizo stuffed cornbread as a standalone side in itself.

I assumed this would be pretty straightforward - iterations of bread stuffed with meat feature high in all cultures, and figured the chorizo/cornbread combo would be pretty big in Southern fare. The stuffing seemed popular enough as it is, so it's not a huge revelation to flip it up the way we wanted. It was surprising, then, that there was a pretty limited array of recipes online for this, and we finally opted to make it up as we went along.

After looking at a few cornbread recipes now, it isn't hard to figure out the main ingredients: cornmeal, all purpose flour, milk, eggs, baking powder, and some sort of fat, be it butter or oil. It's really just about the proportions (we'll get to Michael Ruhlman's magic ratios eventually), or the extra bells and whistles: in this case, chorizo.

We bought some pork chorizo and took the meat out of its casing for a closer look, and figured the fat from the sausage in itself would probably negate having to use much butter, and found that other recipes didn't use butter at all. Instead, then, we opted for canola oil, which keeps the cornbread moist without imparting too much of its own flavour. In the end, our concoction went something like this:

dry ingredients: 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 tbsp baking powder, 2 tbsp sugar;
wet ingredients: 2 eggs, 1 cup milk, 1/4 cup canola oil
chorizo: 2 links, which ended being about a 1/2lb. Brown it first, obviously.

Mix the dry ingredients together, and mix the wet ingredients together separately. Combine the two, mix it until it gets to that cornmeal/grits look to it, and then mix in the chorizo so that it's evenly distributed.

It might seem odd to add that much sugar at first, but, depending on the spice of your chorizo, it takes some of the bite out and balances it out. A 1/4 cup of canola oil might seem like a lot too - we probably used a bit less - but, again, it depends on the chorizo: the sausage we got didn't really have too much fat (thanks Whole Foods!), and, because you'll have to refrigerate any leftover cornbread because of the meat, you'll need just a tad bit more than you'd think in order to keep it from drying out in the cold.

12 more days to go! Here's the accompanying song for this trial:
Calypso King & the Soul Investigators (the same Soul Investigators that back up Nicole Willis) - "Greasy Pork"

Here's a Mos Def related track as well to recap the week. Truly one of the best hip hop shows I've seen. The guy's an ENTERTAINER.

Fela Kuti - "Fear Not For Man"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 2 - Food & Wine

After this, my sophomore foray into the world of cornbread, I felt a general buzz of confidence. I've messed up my fair share of pies, pastries, etc., so a 2 & 0 for edible product might have gone to my head. That, of course, didn't last long.

The day after I made this second cornbread, from a recipe in Food & Wine's February 2008 issue, a co-worker of mine showed up with a gigantic loaf of red pepper/cayenne cornbread that pretty much made me weep. Moist, spicy, light...sigh. It's just more proof that these cornbread trials may have a ways to go.

Here's the Food & Wine details:

Toasted Cornmeal Corn Bread
2 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp kosher salt
1.5 cups whole milk
2/3 cup honey, warmed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350. Oil a 9x13 inch pan. In a medium skillet, toast the cornmeal overly moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk in the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the milk with the honey and eggs. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and whisk until moistened. Add the butter and whisk until smooth. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for 30 minutes until golden.

The opening blurb to the recipe reads: "Toasting the cornmeal first gives the corn bread a heartier flavour." Well, if it did, I didn't notice, 'cause a 2/3 cup of honey IS A LOT OF HONEY. Well, at least for a cornbread.

For the most part, the sweetness caught us a bit off guard, and this cornbread really ended up being alot more like a loaf than anything you would have as a side. It would go well with a spicy main, but probably too filling to be a side in most meals. Unless, of course, you can pack that shizz away (hot dog eating champ, I'm lookin' at you). I'd either cut the honey by a half next time, or use the recipe for cornmeal muffins.

The coarseness of the cornmeal does take abit of getting used to. I gave my co-worker a sample, and the bite-i-ness of it took her aback. It does make the cornbread more dense and substantial, so changing to a fine grain might be another way to make this cornbread a bit less of a grandstand on the table.

One note: the butter. Oh, man: the butter. There's just no understatement of how far a bit (or a lot) of butter can take any type of baking, and we really noticed the difference with this cornbread. It was just perfectly moist, but after hearing that my co-worker puts sour cream in her cornbread, I'm curious to see how much further I can take this.

Anyway, here's what I was listening to when I made this:
Ballin' Jack - "Found a Child" (specifically, that break at 2:11, which I could put on repeat all day)

As an endnote, it's funny to compare issues of Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Gourmet through the past two years. Has anyone else noticed how skimpy these magazines have gotten? Eat Me Daily has. Ad pages were down in the latter two magazines by 40% and 51.9%, respectively. That's a huge drop, and not a good sign for an industry that's been at a crossroads. But why the heck is Conde Nast running two competing magazines, anyway? Just sayin'. 'Course, if Bon Appetit continues to run awesome pieces like this David Chang (Momofuku) comic, I'd be really disappointed to see it go.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 1 - Saveur's Texas Issue

My sister's in the midst of planning a full-tilt barbecue for my nephew's first birthday. A barbecue is not something we take lightly, having been indoctrinated in the world of all-things-smoky during our parent's tenure in Texas. When she asked me to be in charge of the cornbread, I took this task to heart: I've got a little less than a month to produce the perfect product.

I love me some cornbread. It's not quite the same as having a dinner roll or baguette to accompany a meal. Cornbread is a feature unto its own. It's got its own heartbeat, enough to straddle the line between main and side, and not to be treated as an afterthought. Anyone that's had it warm, either fried in bacon grease or with a pat of butter will attest to that.

The first version we tested was from Saveur's July 2009 Texas issue:

Jalapeno Cornbread
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 cups flour
1.5 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp and 1 tsp baking powder
2.5 tsp salt
2 cups milk
0.5 cup corn oil
2 eggs, beaten
0.75 cup fresh/frozen corn kernels
0.75 cup sliced pickled jalapenos
2 tbsp butter

Heat oven to 425. Whisk cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt in a large bowl. Whisk in milk, corn oil, and eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in corn and jalapenos. Heat a 12" cast-iron skillet; grease with butter. Pour in batter, bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 35 minutes.

I made a few variations to the ingredients. First off, I'm not a huge fan of overly sweet cornbread, and prefer mine to be on the savory side. 1.5 tbsp of sugar seemed like an awful lot to me, so I reduced it to 1 tbsp, particularly as I wasn't sure how sweet the corn would be. For the corn, I picked up a few fresh ears of 2 colour corn grown locally, which didn't end up being nearly as sweet as I thought it would (an ear of peaches and cream corn or yellow corn probably would've been sweeter). One medium-sized cob turns out to yield roughly 0.75 cup.

Pickled jalapenos also ain't the easiest to fine, or, moreover, I was way too lazy to look for it on a Saturday afternoon and thought fresh jalapenos would work out just fine. My brother-in-law also has a heightened sensitivity to spice, so I cut that amount down to 2 jalapenos, which I assume would be about a third of a cup, tops.

If you've never made cornbread before, it bakes quick. 35 minutes is probably a bit on the high side; mine was probably done around the 25 to 30 minute mark. I didn't have a 12" cast-iron skillet - those bitches can be mad expensive - so I just used our standard 9" square baking pan.

Going over the recipe, you'll notice one thing: there's little to no butter involved. In fact, the only butter that is used is really just to grease the pan. This cornbread relies mostly on the milk and corn oil for its moistness, which is why you'll want to opt for milk with a higher fat content than usual (I went with 2% as we mostly drink skim; bachelors/husbands with tolerant wives will want to opt for homo).

We bought a little cornbread from Whole Foods just to have a frame of reference (it's the little round one in the picture above). Their's was definitely more in the sweet variety, and had little niblets of corn. For a cornbread that's probably been sitting on the shelf for at least a day, Whole Foods does a good job of keeping it moist.

Overall, ours ended up alright, though I'd probably add in that missing 0.5tbsp of sugar that I skimped out on, particularly next to the Whole Foods one. It might not be the most health-conscious decision, but I'd probably also add in a little butter for that added umph, but the fact that it didn't really have any certainly kept the missus happy. I'm also a bit curious to see what the skillet adds to the whole thing, so I'm off to go get one today...maybe.

Here's a Gaturs track to accompany: "Gator Bait"

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Madrid Eats: Dassa Bassa

For our last night in Madrid - and Spain - we really wanted to go all out and go nuts, and where better than in the land where molecular gastronomy has entered the household vernacular? We searched online for some quality nouveau Spanish cuisine, and Dassa Bassa seemed to be a popular choice.

Dassa Bassa is the home of Dario Barrio, whom NY Times calls one of Madrid's "five disciples of the haute cuisine guru Ferran Adria," which only emphasizes what an enormous impact Adria has had on an entire culture. It's hard to over-exaggerate just how famous Adria is in his native land, and even harder to think of any one chef that has so much impact on any one culture save for, perhaps, Escoffier. In any case, Barrio is a young, rising star in Madrid, and host of Todos Contra El Chef, a Spanish version of UK's Britain versus Chef, where spectators challenge Barrio to a duel. It doesn't hurt matters much that Barrio's one handsome dude:

We found Dassa Bassa on the outskirts of the Salamanca district, which is where the posh and glamorous reside in Madrid. If you've ever wondered where the beautiful people roam in Spain, this is it. We visited the restaurant the day before to ensure we could get reservations (note to the wise: just ask for a reservation at 9:30. It's late for us N.American folks, but too early for the locals to entertain). It's not the easiest place to find, and it looks like a tiny lounge from the street level. However, the actual restaurant is below the street level, in a maze of old cellar rooms that have been completely modernized and redone. The manager, proud of just how gorgeous the space is, wanted to give us a tour of the restaurant that afternoon, and who were we not to oblige?

It's always somewhat unnerving when you arrive at a place close to 10pm and the only other table in sight are seniors, but that's Madrid for you. We sat to an serving of olives and yucca chips, which turned out to be the first course of the tasting menu without us having even ordered it (we did). The place slowly filled up, mostly with other tourists in the know, with locals following close behind.

Once we had ordered, the next item really set the stage: the gin fizz. I've never had a tasting menu where a cocktail is one of the courses, but I can't say I'm opposed. The shot glass was filled with seltzer water, with the gin encapsulated in this bubble sphere floating at the top. Meant to be downed in one gulp, the orb of gin bursts in the mouth with the rush of seltzer water to mix.

A little espresso cup of a chilled ginger and leak soup followed. Soup in shot glasses isn't exactly a new thing, but this one was more like a foamy drink than a pedestrian chilled soup, and refreshing after a day in the summer sun.

After four starters, the actual courses commenced with a gazpacho. Instead of the usual tomato soup that college kids serve at their first few grown-up dinner parties, this gazpacho had a healthy base of strawberry thrown into the mix, which made it much more of an interesting flavour combination than expected.

I've only ever known bonito as those little dried flakes that adorn so many Japanese dishes, but here we were served an actual piece of bonito, which is similar to a tuna. Bonito is a dry, firm fish, and it would be pretty easy to overcook. This bonito, though, was well-prepared, and served with a citrus sorbet of sorts, and a bed of peppers. This gave a great dose of sweetness to the dish that would have otherwise been on the meat-y, protein-y side.

To keep the dry fish theme going, the next course was hake, which, of course, was also perfectly prepared. I remember this as being served in a bonito broth, which had the right amount of saltiness that the traditional dried and salted hake has.

I cannot and will not cease in extolling the virtues of suckling pig. Every culture has some version of the suckling pig, and for good reason: there's very few dishes that are more perfect. Dassa Bassa's version had layers of suckling pork sitting atop a cornmeal type base, which in itself was in a slightly sweet sauce. On top, the most crucial element: the crackling (oh, GOD, the crackling!), with another citrus-y glob that was reminiscent of that atop the bonito, but at room temperature. Simply perfect.

I don't remember much about dessert number one - it has been almost two months - but I do remember a good dose of gin, tying it to the gin fizz served at the beginning, a layer of sweet ice, and feeling like I needed to take a picture of all the layers involved. There you go. A good palate cleanser to transition.

I do remember slightly more about dessert number two, a chocolate fudge. It doesn't look like much from the picture, but underneath the surface of chocolate fudge pudding was an array of nuts, chocolate, cake-y goodness underneath.

Things ended off with a selection of petite fours, which I feel should really end all dinners around the world, everywhere. These included a selection of truffles, passionfruit marshmallows, and cookies.

After dinner, we headed upstairs and chatted with the manager, who had remembered us from the day before. It's great meeting someone that is so obviously proud of his establishment, and he took his time in asking us for our opinion of the meal. We signed the guestbook, and found ourselves checking onto our flight home a few hours later, knowing full well that it'll be a long, long time before we find another place that matches all of the culinary treats we found in Spain.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Madrid Eats: Estado Puro

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for style over substance. I'll be much more forgiving of a mediocre meal if I'm eating it in an impeccable environment, 'cause let's face it: a great dining experience ain't just about the food.

For example, when we sat down for a quick snack at the Rene Sofia addition, it really wasn't about the food, but about the incredible Jean Nouvel-designed room that we sat in.

Of course, it helps when you order something as brilliant as a lomo sandwich. It's pretty hard to fuck up a grilled pork chop sandwich, and I really haven't had a bad one yet. Eating it in that room just elevated it to a higher level than it probably otherwise would've been at.

When it came to Estado Puro, however, style wasn't all that there ever was. The restaurant is one gorgeous place, tucked in one of the NH Hotels a block away from the Rene Sofia, and designed by local architects James and Mau - it's a pretty fun and stunning room. But more importantly, Estado Puro is the brainchild of Paco Roncero, one of the upper echalon of Spanish chefs.

Roncero was one of Ferran Adria's El Bulli proteges from the late 90s, and probably one of the more famed non-Adria chef to come out of the renowned restaurant. Since then, Roncero has made a name for himself in Madrid, chiefly with the Casino de Madrid and NH Hotels. Estado Puro is Roncero's stab at re-thinking traditional tapas.

We sat down outside in the sidewalk patio during an intense summer afternoon, watched British tourists cut the line and steal our table and one of our adjacent tables lose a purse to a petty thief. After the drama settled, we went with the "Meat Bombs": a take on the traditional meat and potato croquettes. These weren't so brilliantly conceptualized so much as they were brilliantly executed (and plated), with there being a great balance of meat and a delicate, crispy potato exterior, miles away from mere average croquettes that end up being a mash potato nightmare.

Throughout our visit, we noticed that Russian salads were a ubiquitous option on every menu, which didn't seem overly obvious to us. As far as I can gather, the Russian salad is really all about the mayonnaise, with the rest of the contents being a toss up of egg, meats/seafood and the quality dependent on freshness and balance. I can't remember much about this version, but probably mostly because I'm not sure what the attraction of the Russian salad is to begin with.

We also got the Cantabrian anchovies with tomato and basil. Cantabrian anchovies are highly sought-after, and probably a bit politically incorrect to order as their numbers are now quite low (we didn't know until, um, today), and are cured longer, giving them a bit of a firmer, drier taste than the typical oil soaked fillet one sees in grocery store tins this side of the Atlantic. Roncero is apparently also known for his mastery of olive oil, and these simple two/three bite anchovies saw amazing compliment in the olive oil, basil and tomato that they sat on. Probably the best anchovies I've ever had.

The true star, though, was this dish: pig trotters with cuttlefish "noodles." The pig trotters were, quite simply, one of the most memorable items I have ever eaten. The meat, fat and skin of the trotters simply melted in the mouth, into an incredible mix of all-things-pork that dwelled in the outermost points of extravagance. The cuttlefish 'noodles' might seem unnecessary, but they gave a good contrasting balance to the richness of the trotters, despite being resolutely rich in themselves. This was a dish that exuded pure substance, and rendered the surrounding stylishness a non-thought.