List Monday: how to take a saliva-inducing shot for your food blog.

  1. Cook something.
  2. Or, if you don’t want to cook something, just buy something that looks sorta like what you plan to cook.*
  3. Make sure that you cook during daylight hours, under a skylight.
  4. Wait, forget the skylight. You don’t have one, but can make do with a big window.
  5. If you can’t cook during the day, but instead prepare your subject at night, putting the subject in the refrigerator in hopes that it can be styled the next day to still look freshly-made, then don’t forget to tell your husband that he is not, under any late-night-snack-needing circumstances, to eat the subject.
  6. Put your 2-year old down for afternoon rest time.
  7. Hand your 4-year old the Nintendo DS. His “twenty minutes” starts…. NOW.
  8. Dig around in your dishes for something interesting to plate your food. Go with the blue Target plates, again.
  9. Make a mental note that at some point, a trip to the thrift stores for more props could be advantageous. Realize that you’ve been making this note-to-self for about a year.
  10. Carefully carry plated food to the space in your house that has the most outdoor light.
  11. Realize, as you carry plated food to that space with fabulous light, that there is nowhere on your work desk to actually set the food.
  12. Set food on the piano. Clear off an 18″ square of clear space on your desk. Spit-shine the white laminate desk to erase coffee rings. Wipe crumbs onto the floor.
  13. Station the plate in the center of the clear area. Grab your camera to see if the pile of bills is going to show in the frame.
  14. Curse as you realize the battery is dead. Hook up the battery to the charger, and test different napkin props during the approximate 2 minutes it needs to have enough juice to take a few shots.
  15. Decide the wrinkled, stained napkin doesn’t do much for the shot anyway.
  16. Grab the re-juiced camera, frame the shot, turn off the auto-flash, and wait.
  17. Wait some more.
  18. Ok, now that the sun has gone behind a cloud and light is sufficiently diffused, snap a few. Change angles, snap again. Zoom, snap again.
  19. Move food back to the piano. Place laptop where subject once sat, and hookup camera to download shots.
  20. Notice that they all show a pile of computer-related cords making an unwelcome cameo appearance in the upper right-hand corner.
  21. After careful consideration, accept that no one will believe the cords are either edible or decorative, no matter how far they are outside the depth-of-field.
  22. Start again at #12, skipping numbers 14-16.
  23. Hope for the best. There’s not another redo.
  24. Especially since you just ate the subject. You got the kids fed, but forgot to eat lunch.

* Ok, I’ve never done this. And in fact, it feels just a touch dishonest, in some bizarre foodblog-ethics universe.

Oat-chocolate cookies (whole grain, no refined sweeteners, & still worth their butter)

I had the pleasure of leading a short discussion this week, with a group of parents at a friend’s church. The topic was sugar — I came armed-and-ready with all the notes from my sugar series, and proceeded to dump information on small a group of (perhaps unsuspecting) moms (plus one dad) for an hour. What I learned this week was that I’m a much more concise writer than talker. When I talk, rabbits get chased, shiny objects get followed, and trains-of-thought get derailed. There’s no “undo” button for my spoken word, no way to go back and not waste so much time on one thought when another one was just as deserving.

It kind of reminded me of the very situations that caused me to start blogging: by the end of the conversation, I wasn’t sure where I stood with my listeners, whether I did more damage than good to their thoughts about sweeteners. An admittedly appealing aspect of blogging is that I don’t have to witness anyone’s eyes glazing-over, or know if someone clicks away without finishing a post. I am a blissfully ignorant sharer of information.

But what I can’t do, ever, in blogging, is give everyone a cookie. Which is exactly what I did at the end of my talk — I figure if I’ve left anyone’s brain in a minutia-induced fog, the least I can do is end on a sweet note.

Of course, it helped that I wasn’t just passing around a box of Oreo’s (not that there’s anything wrong with that) — but homemade, edible example of using the kind of unrefined sweeteners I’d been talking about. I have no shame in the fact that I do use white table sugar in recipes (often, cookies) in our house. But when a recipe takes well to the molasses-y tones of an unrefined dry sweetener, I’ll reach for it every time. It was a bonus that, since this recipe calls for whole oats, they also hold their own using whole-grain flour rather than all-purpose (or a combination). Truly, these are some of the most addictive unrefined cookies I’ve ever made.

The recipe is loosely adapted from one acquired from a bakery I worked at in Georgia. Their dessert case offered a single egg-and-dairy-free cookie — the Vegan Oatmeal-Chocolate. They were, by far, my favorite cookie to sneak at work. I think most of this is due to their saltiness — I’ve long been guilty of bumping up the salt just a touch in cookie recipes, to give (what I consider to be) a better sweet/salty balance in our favorite hand-held dessert. But they were also sturdy and somehow delicate, an oatmeal cookie that didn’t too-closely resemble a version of what I ate for breakfast.

I use my own sprouted wheat flour in these, but you can use whole-wheat pastry flour with equal success. If you don’t have sucanat (or Rapadura) you could substitute a mixture of 1/2 white sugar, 1/2 brown sugar. But I encourage you to pick up sucanat in bulk at your health food store, and experiment with it. It’s flavor is earthy and rich, and the unrefined nature is gentler on spiking blood sugar (something mine is quick to do).

Watch these carefully in their last minutes in the oven, especially if you use a dark pan — they can go from perfect to charred very quickly.

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Whole-grain Oat-Chocolate Cookies
makes about 36 2″ cookies

  • 2 1/4 cups rolled oats
  • 1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry (or sprouted) flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 3/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup (12 Tbsp) butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 cup sucanat
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350º, and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Have oven racks in two middle positions.

In a large bowl, combine the first five ingredients (oats through salt).

In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a standing mixer), cream together the butter and sucanat until well-combined and a bit fluffy, about 2 minutes (scrape down the bowl as necessary). Add the egg and vanilla, and mix until combined. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients until fully combined. Add the chocolate chips, and mix by hand or on low-speed until well-dispersed.

Scoop tablespoon-sized balls and place 2″ apart on cookie sheets. With a greased palm, flatten each ball into a disk.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, switching the cookie sheets from front to back and top to bottom, about halfway through. Watch closely at the end — it’s hard to tell they are browning until they are almost overcooked.

Let cool completely on racks, and store in an airtight container.

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The scoop on sweets, part four: the final chapter, finally.

Wanna get caught up on the sugar series before reading the last page of the book? If so, feel free to peruse Part 1 (artificial sweeteners), Part 2 (what sugar does to your body), and Part 3 (so what do I use again?).

Finally! The last in my series on sugar, wherein I tackle the remaining messy bits of sugary debate: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and agave nectar. I procrastinated on this one a bit because it was a big subject to tackle; both of these sweeteners are surrounded in controversy (much more for HFCS than agave), and while I think that the evidence stacked against HFCS is clear and damning, there is much money at stake in convincing the public otherwise, leaving an often-confused consumer (who to believe? if it’s so bad, why does the FDA let people use it?). On a grand scale of edible danger, I personally put aspartame in a much more lethal category than either of these sweeteners. But I still avoid them in my home, and following is why.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

When all the bad press started to come out about this sweetener, a friend of mine sat down to google it, and landed immediately on a site that told her, “HFCS is the chemical and nutritional equivalent to table sugar (sucrose). The two substances have the same calories, the same chemical composition, and are metabolized identically.” She read the information aloud to me, and then said, “So I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just sugar.”  Then I asked her to look at the bottom of the site, to see who is funding it. The answer? The Corn Refiner’s Association. And this is where all of the logic starts to get really, really fuzzy.

If you visit the website, the homepage (as of February 19, 2011) lists the facts below (quoted directly). But like a used car salesman telling only half-truths about the history of a car, these statements are somewhat misleading, and leave out the parts that can be negatively construed. Taken apart one by one:

High fructose corn syrup is composed of the same two simple sugars (fructose and glucose) as table sugar, honey and maple syrup.

Ok, yes. HFCS is composed of both fructose and glucose, just like sugar, honey, and maple syrup. The big differences are 1) the highly-processed nature of HFCS compared to these other sweeteners (even sugar, in its most refined white state, is not as processed as HFCS), and 2) the ratio of fructose to glucose in the chemistry. In short, fructose is bad news. It does wacky things to your liver, and is converted to fat more readily than its partner glucose. The percentage of fructose in HFCS ranges from about 55% (in soft drinks) to a staggering 90% (ironically in many “diet” foods, where the intense sweetness of fructose is preferred). Since table sugar, honey, and maple syrup all have about 50% fructose, the industry claims that the extra 5% in HFCS is negligible. But research shows that there is something in that 5% that is much more significant than a bar graph might indicate. That seemingly small percentage seems to tip the body’s metabolic scales, causing reactions that go beyond what is predicted by corn chemists on paper (more about a comparison study feeding table sugar or HFCS to lab rats, below).

There has been much confusion about this natural sweetener made from corn. We want to clear up this confusion by calling this ingredient what it is: corn sugar.

While this nomenclature is likely to call up imagery of some grandmotherly women in a kitchen, using a mortar and pestle to grind fresh grains of corn down into a syrup that they then dehydrate in the sun, the reality is that it takes 3 enzyme additions involving fungi, chemicals, and large vats, plus two additional refining steps in one of 16 chemical plants across the heartland to get the tanker full of clear syrup that the Corn Refiner’s Association would like the FDA to start calling “corn sugar.”

High fructose corn syrup is simply a kind of corn sugar. It has the same number of calories as sugar and is handled similarly by the body.

Again, it is true the the calorie count is the same. But “similarly” is not exactly. And those minuscule differences in how the body processes HFCS can have quite detrimental effects. In one study, rats were fed either exclusively HFCS ( in amounts much lower than those in soda) or sugar. The HFCS group gained significantly more weight, with every single HFCS rat becoming obese. While naturally occurring sugars and fruits contain fructose bound to other sugars, high fructose corn syrup contains a large amount of unbound fructose. Kind of like my Murphy’s Oil Soap analogy concerning the metabolites of aspartame — the body just can’t do good things with unbound fructose. It’s not the way nature carries its sugar, and not the way our bodies were meant to process it.

But it’s not just obesity. Consumption of fructose is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated triglycerides and LDL, and cardiovascular disease. We are a generation of adults that has been trained to lower cholesterol by avoiding animal fats and eggs, and by popping a staggering number of statins starting in our early 30s. But why isn’t our doctor telling us to avoid large amounts of fructose? Why is this so easily overlooked by the FDA as a likely cause for our decline of health in America?

Agave Nectar

This one is tough, because so many health-conscious people are using it — especially diabetics and those on low-carb diets. I purchased a bottle at Trader Joe’s last year, thinking it was a healthy way to sweeten my tea. But the more I read, the more concerned I became, and eventually threw out the rest of my bottle.

To boil it down, agave nectar is often produced very similarly to HFCS*. It is not a “nectar” at all (again, giving us the idea that native workers in South America are spending sun-drenched days squeezing the nectar out of agave leaves, giving us a pure and natural syrup like the maple syrup tapped from trees) but a sugar syrup derived from the starch of the agave or yucca root bulb. It goes through similar chemical and enzymatic processing as HFCS, only it ends up with upwards of 70% fructose (as opposed to the low-end 55% for HFCS).

This fact alone would cause me to avoid agave nectar for my family. There are some other concerns, including one that warns pregnant or nursing women to avoid it — the agave plant contains saponins which can stimulate excess bloodflow to the uterus. Even though the fructose of agave nectar doesn’t raise glucose levels (a reason most people us it), the high percentage of free fructose makes it, in my opinion, equally as questionable as HFCS.

In all of this controversy, the Corn Refiner’s folks have one thing right: we can’t consume huge amounts of any sugar and hope to be healthy. This goes for every kind of sweet thing, from an apple to raw honey to HFCS. But that doesn’t change the fact that these highly-refined sweeteners are a much greater evil on the scale of sweets — that they are not chemically the same. And since they are found in so many products, from ketchup to “whole-grain” breads, they are not only indicators of the fact that a food is highly-processed, but they are actually contributing more negatively to the body’s health, all in the name of making things sweeter, softer, and have a longer shelf life, and all for a much bigger profit to the producer.

Which is what it all comes down to: money. These refined sweeteners make it cheaper to make food products — and the products are therefore cheaper for the consumer, and sweet enough to keep the buyer coming back. But I stand by the notion that when it comes to food and our health, we will all pay at some point. I tend to think an investment in higher-quality whole foods on the front end will end up saving us a relative ton in future health care.

And with that final bit of opinion, I believe most every nook and cranny has been covered. Not sure exactly what to do with my apocalyptic soapbox now that I’ve maxed out my opinions on sugar — though I’m confident another use will present itself. In the meantime, though — anyone have a use for this megaphone and full-length body placard that reads, “Eat sugar and BURN” (includes hand-painted red flames!)?

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*Some agave syrups are less refined than others — but it’s hard to tell which is which. And even in those that are less refined, the percentage of free fructose is around 70% — which is a hard sell to me, when I can reach for honey (about 38%) or pure maple syrup (about 1%) instead.

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Finding marinated cauliflower as liver mousse eludes.

Let’s say money was no object. Let’s say I was wealthy and (perhaps just a little) ostentatious, but in that Richie Rich kind of way where I had oodles of cash but everyone still liked me (foregoing the part where I’m a cartoon character).

If this were the case, I would eat at Recess every week. And I would take friends with me.

There are many reasons for this, including the facts that it’s close to our house and a fixed menu forces you to try things you might not otherwise. But mostly it’s because I trust the chefs at Recess to make good food. You can read a more detailed of our first experience there, here, but in short they are creative without being overly-trendy or inaccessible, they use seasonal ingredients (local when possible), and know how to season food.

But, alas, I am not Richie Rich. And Recess is not cheap. So our visits there will be few and far between, except when good friends of ours have a gift certificate, and decide to share it with us. Then, we’re rich, and full of gratitude.

So we went, a couple weeks ago, on an icy night. Four of us, glad to be out while our children were tucked in bed by babysitters, celebrating a birthday among us, ready to eat whatever the chef was cooking. That night they served pea shoots and pistachios, sweetbreads, Tasmanian trout, and white chocolate with citrus. All courses were pleasing; but the dish that left us practically begging for more was an optional appetizer course of liver mousse.

It’s thanks to Nathan that we ordered it at all. Tim and I are both on the outside of the liver fence, being offended enough by its gaminess that, even after trying multiple times to make my own paté, we just can’t eat it (thankfully my preschooler and toddler love it so it doesn’t go to waste). I don’t know what else to say here. Part of me thinks that I can’t call myself a true lover-of-food if the “food” I refer to doesn’t include liver. There are other things on my don’t-eat list that I stand behind: black licorice, root beer, and cilantro (don’t give me grief on that one, my hatred is shared with one JULIA CHILD). But liver, I should like it. I am, after all, a Big Girl now (which was my sub-conscious whisper of encouragement as the table unanimously agreed to order the mousse).

When the appetizer was delivered to the table, it had been baked in a small, shallow jelly jar, and the surface was covered in a parsley gelée. It was served with little toasts and a small dish of marinated cauliflower and carrots, chopped very finely. Almost nervous from the question mark that loomed, I grabbed a toast, a knife, and cut through the virgin layer of green gelatin to the mousse underneath. The spread was then topped with a dollop of minced cauliflower. I tasted, and waited. Waited for the aroma of livery gaminess to linger unwelcome. But it never happened. It just wasn’t livery. And not only was it not livery, but it was creamy, with a hint of garlic, perfectly dressed with the acid of the marinated cauliflower. When we’d cleaned our plate of the bread and vegetables, Sarah was the bold one, asking for more so all of us could adequately finish the jar of delightful liver mousse.

I couldn’t stand it. I had to know how it was done — so I asked the server to ask the chef. She returned, and told me that after onions, etc. were sautéed in butter, they were puréed with cream and raw chicken livers. Then they were baked in the jars, in a water bath. I came home that night and did a search, and landed on a recipe that exactly described that process (even including the parsley gelée!). This was my moment. This was the time I would make a liver (fill-in-the-blank) and we would eat it. My family would eat it, and we would love it.

I had local, pastured chicken livers in my freezer. I thawed, sautéed, processed, baked. They cooled, I mixed puréed parsley and gelatin, I poured, they set. Then I chopped cauliflower and carrots, and tossed in a vinaigrette. Everything was ready to go, and it looked just exactly like our appetizer at Recess.

And of course you know how this ends, because my title was fraught with foreshadowing. The mousse was livery. Just like every paté I’ve tried to make. Once I gave my verdict, Tim wouldn’t even take a bite. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I can usually shrug off failures in the kitchen — but this one was hard to shake. I think it was less the effort perceived wasted as much as the fact that I still can’t make liver that I find edible. And somehow, deep down, it makes me feel like less of a person.

I know, take it to my therapist.

But. There was this tiny silver lining. The next day, Tim and I were fighting over the leftover marinated cauliflower salad. I’ve got nothing against cauliflower, but it’s not a vegetable we eat with regularity. This is an absolute lovely way to partake. Since the vegetables are blanched, they lose that raw edge — and the vinaigrette, with its tang and mild heat (from red pepper flakes), is held in place by all those nooks and crannies of the cauliflower. It was a delicious salad on its own, but we also used it to top a curry the next night with great results.

And, hey. There’s nothing wrong with discovering a new marinated vegetable salad to add to our repertoire, right? That’s enough for a Friday night, yes?

Who am I kidding. Someone talk me off the ledge here — tell me, how do they make the liver palatable to the game-phobic? Obsessive-compulsive minds want to know.

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Marinated Cauliflower Salad

  • 1/2 medium head cauliflower, cut into small florets  (3-4 cups)
  • 4 medium carrots, cut in half lengthwise, then into 1/4″ slices
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbs white wine vinegar
  • handful finely chopped Italian parsley

Bring salted water (1 tsp for every 2 quarts water) to a boil in a large saucepan. Add chopped vegetables (in two batches if necessary) to boiling water, and cook for 2 minutes. Immediately remove vegetables to a colander (I love a wire skimmer like this one to scoop cooked items from boiling water), and let drain for a few minutes.

In a small skillet or saucepan, add the olive oil, red pepper flakes, and garlic clove. Place over medium-low heat, and cook just until the garlic begins to sizzle. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool for about 15 minutes.

Pour cooled olive oil into a bowl large enough to hold the vegetables (discard garlic clove). Add the mustard, plus 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper. Stir vigorously with a fork until the dressing comes together (the mustard helps emulsify the dressing). Add the vegetables, and toss well to coat.

Top with parsley, and add more salt and pepper as needed. Can be made a day ahead, and refrigerated overnight in an airtight container. Let come close to room temperature before serving.

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Discovering why “healthy” and “Valentine’s Day treat” don’t always coincide.

So I’m realizing that it’s pretty hard to ignore Valentine’s Day when you have three small children. And I’m ok with this — if there is one relationship in which I can swoon with sticky sentimentality, it’s the one with my children (Tim and I are thankfully on the same page in this). When it comes to my little ones, I can be found cutting out construction-paper hearts at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night so that they can find them in their breakfast seats first thing in the morning. I will wear my one red item of clothing — a jealousy-inducing vintage wool cardigan found at a thrift store by my friend Emily (a woman who walks into thrift stores and little treasures start sending out homing signals, beckoning her to take them home for a fraction of their actual worth) to my 4-year old’s preschool party. And of course, I will make them something special, something sweet, something overtly heart-shaped and/or covered in pink sugar.

But this year, we are just coming out of six weeks of viral hell. And as firm believer that sugar suppresses one’s immune system, I wasn’t quite ready to start overdosing on the crystals, not today. So as I perused in my reader a few favorite nourishing/traditional-diet blogs, I landed on a recipe for avocado chocolate pudding. Since I’ve had great results with avocados in desserts-of-past, I decided this could be my ticket for a V-day treat for my kids that would leave them feeling adequately treated, without my then forcing them to wash it down with a toxic dose of vitamin C.

So I grabbed the necessary ingredients today at the grocery (i.e., avocados), came home after the party and went to work (mind you, in seclusion, so my kids wouldn’t see the secret ingredient, since that would in their [now justifiable] minds render the stuff unedible).

Now, I’m no Jessica Seinfeld, but I have been known to sneak “healthy” food into dishes. Things such as chicken livers (a quarter-pound of them finely chopped becomes indistinguishable in a beef spaghetti sauce), or almonds (my kids don’t like them in large pieces, but if I grind them into a near-powder before baking them into granola, they never know they’re eating protein). But the key to this trick, in my opinion, is that it simply should not effect the flavor in a negative way. In other words, I’m fine with sticking avocado into a chocolate pudding, as long as the end result still tastes like chocolate pudding.

But when I removed the lid from my food processor and licked today’s concoction from the spatula, what I tasted was cocoa-powder-infused avocados. With a finish of banana. This, I’m doubting, will pass for chocolate pudding. No matter how many shavings of real chocolate dust the top, no matter how many pink-and-red hearts are in the vicinity.

My kids will make the final judgment, and I might be surprised. But even if it’s a pudding fail, it’s not a bad metaphor. When we think about love, we often like to dress it up in our minds; that it’s foil-wrapped chocolates, glittering cards and packages, strawberry-and-chocolate-infused menus washed down with something bubbly. But most often, especially in the worlds of marriage and parenthood, love is much more often an avocado — one that’s been disguised as something else. And when it’s finally revealed for what it is, it is then embraceable as its own thing. Something raw and simpler, something really good for you; something humble and delightful in its own right.

Ok, it’s a stretch, I know. But at least it gives me something to ponder, while I go back to the kitchen and whip up the bowl of guacamole I’m suddenly craving.

There’s red in guacamole, right?

What to ask the Lt. Governor when you have her ear.

And I (along with about 20 other bloggers) will have her ear, next week. I have been invited to participate in a Blogger Roundtable Discussion with Lt. Governor Becky Skillman, on Wednesday. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I realized that probably meant I needed to come prepared with some thoughts. Or questions. Or anything other than my “nice” pants (and that’s not a euphemism… I really mean pants that don’t have a drawstring or grease stains).

Earlier this week, my blogger friend Angie wrote a post, asking her readers what type of question they might like her to ask on their behalf. So I decided to steal take inspiration from her idea, and ask my readers the same question. Obviously, this mostly applies to my readers who live in Indiana (though, by all means, if you live elsewhere but have a burning question for our Lt. Governor, then speak up — because otherwise I might end up inquiring about her favorite flavor of créme brulée).

One of the agencies the Lt. Governor oversees in our fair state is Agriculture. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the state department of Agriculture in Indiana would probably not be a department with which I would see eye-to-eye on many issues. But the reasons are complex and much more that I want to delve into if I get to ask only one question.

So, what do I ask? Knowing that I am not asking to necessarily get an answer, but to make known the thoughts and concerns of food-loving people in Indiana? If you have a suggestion, do tell. Otherwise, it could be me babbling nonsense with nothing to defend my incoherence but the disclaimer, “I don’t get out much.”

Bacon-cheddar corn bread

Hopefully this won’t land me in the same category as a certain Kenneth Cole twitter/PR disaster, but I did see a really funny tweet last week:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/juliussharpe/status/32297848204689408″%5D

We Americans do love our cured pork, and even though it’s been predicted that bacon and pork belly are slowly becoming “so last year,” I don’t see our love of the vegetarian-stopper waning anytime soon. I’ll personally admit to enjoying an Elvis doughnut (topped with banana, peanut butter and bacon), having on my dessert-baking to-do list a cornmeal cake with bacon, and being intrigued by David Lebovitz’s candied bacon ice cream. The point being, if we’re willing to throw bacon into our dessert, then who would possibly argue with putting it in cornbread?

So last week, I offered up a pan of this cornbread to serve aside our neighbor’s big pot of chili during the height of Indianapolis’s Ice Storm (#icewhoopin’ & #clusterflake on twitter). After all, outside of ice skating on your back lawn (my neighbor did just that), what more can you do for excitement during an ice-in than change up your go-to cornbread recipe?

I am a Southerner, but more often make “Northern” corn bread, which uses a combination of corn meal and flour, rendering it more cake-y and longer-lasting (Southern corn bread, with its cornmeal-only regime, dries out almost immediately, which is why the leftovers are used for dishes such as cornbread stuffing). I have in recent years used an adaptable recipe for Mexican cornbread from The Moosewood Cookbook; but I find the original recipe too sweet to match up with a hearty dish such as chili. This recipe is a combination of what I like best about both recipes from Moosewood and Joy of Cooking, and is still quite adaptable.

On thing I have learned over the years: the best corn bread is made in a cast-iron pan that has been pre-heated with the required fat from the recipe (butter, lard, or shortening). When you stir the hot fat into the batter at the last second, and then pour it back into the piping-hot pan, you see the edges sizzle and instantly begin to cook. This tells you that the crust on your bread is going to be crunchy and golden-brown rather than soggy and blond. If you don’t have an 8″ or 9″ cast-iron pan, then drop what you’re doing and go get one you can use a glass baking dish.

This cornbread is still mild — it’s not like eating corn-flavored bacon (or corn-flavored cheddar, for that matter). The smoky bacon flavor is intensified by using the rendered fat — so if you love bacon, don’t be afraid of the lard. Leftovers can be toasted the next day, topped with sautéed greens and a poached egg, and bring you lunchtime happiness.

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Bacon-Cheddar Corn Bread
serves 8

If you don’t have a cast iron pan, cook the bacon as desired, and bake bread in a buttered 8″ or 9″ baking dish (do not preheat if dish is glass).

  • 4 slices bacon, cut cross-wise into 1/4″ strips
  • 1 1/4 cups cornmeal (stone-ground preferred)
  • 3/4 cup wheat pastry flour (or unbleached all-purpose)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup coarsely-grated white cheddar
  • 3 Tbsp rendered bacon fat, lard, or vegetable shortening

Preheat oven to 425º.

In an 8″ or 9″ cast-iron pan, cook bacon until crisp. Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate, and pour rendered fat into a glass measuring cup. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients (cornmeal through salt). In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk (or yogurt), and milk.

When ready to combine wet and dry ingredients, place 3 tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat (or lard/shortening) back into the cast-iron pan, and place the pan in the oven to preheat.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, stirring with a rubber spatula until just combined (avoid over-stirring, the batter will be thick). Fold in the cheese and reserved bacon.

When pan in oven is very hot (fat should just start to smoke), remove from oven and very carefully pour the hot fat into the batter. Fold fat into batter, and then pour batter back into the hot pan (an 8″ pan will be quite full). Smooth the batter using spatula, and return pan to oven.

Bake about 25 minutes. The edges should be brown, and a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread should come out clean.

Let cool about 10 minutes, and cut into wedges, serving from the pan.

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