Golden Ears

2009.Feb.04 Wednesday · 0 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

“Gardens, scholars say, are the first sign of commitment to a community. When people plant corn they are saying, let’s stay here. And by their connection to the land, they are connected to one another.”

– Anne Raver, author, specialist in gardening books

Buenos Aires – It’s strange. I openly declare, nearly two years ago, that I have two favorite approaches to menu planning. The mystery basket (which I likened to Iron Chef, but really, it’s more like this newer show, Chopped) and the focus on a single, key ingredient (which is more like Iron Chef). And then, do I do either of those for Casa SaltShaker dinners since then? Not a one. March 2007, tomatoes. January 2009, corn. That’s it.

Why, in particular, do I like those ways of planning menus? Because they require more creativity, more thought – especially the “outside the box” sort – or maybe it’s still inside the box, but just looking in the corners…. The mystery box requires me to think on my feet, so to speak, to plan in the moment, to put stuff together on the fly – not exactly practical for dinners with groups of paying customers, especially when I don’t have an unlimited pantry stocked with items to play with. But there must be a way to approach it… maybe the first five guests to reserve each submit one ingredient and then I plan the menu around that… hmmm…? The key ingredient requires not only creative use of the item, but, almost more importantly, using it in a way that doesn’t come across as repetitive. After all, does anyone really want to eat five courses with scoops of yellow corn sitting on the plate, even if each is spiced differently?

I recently tried an interesting Korean beverage, corn silk tea. Not something available here, and I’m not sure all of what goes into it, but I liked it, and it was stuck in the back of my mind. The flavor of corn silk is different from corn, yet, still recognizable as something related – so I made an infusion of fresh corn silk with some water and sugar, and then strained it and added it to champagne, serving it up as our welcome cocktail. It had people guessing, no question!

Tortilla Crusted Prawns, Guacamole, Chipotle Butter

This was my favorite dish… I think… tortilla crusted prawns – I finely crushed unsalted, fried tortilla chips – the prawns were butterflied and cleaned, then dusted with salted cornstarch, dipped in beaten egg, and then rolled in the tortilla crumbs, and fried. Popcorn shrimp, just bigger. They’re sitting on top of a fresh guacamole – avocado, lime juice, cilantro, salt and white pepper; and surrounded by a spoonful or two of chipotle butter – melted butter infused with chipotle chili powder and salt.

Vegetable Pozole

I knew I wanted to use cracked white corn, or hominy, in the menu at some point – I haven’t seen the type that’s already ground for grits here, but the whole cracked stuff is used for locro, so makes a good starting point. I decided on a pozole, a Mexican corn based soup that’s mildly spicy, and because we’d had several people ask for a non-red meat dinner (more and more common of request – go figure, here in BA), and there was already chicken coming up later, I planned on a vegetable version. I soaked the corn overnight, then put it in a pot of vegetable stock to start simmering away. Meanwhile, I pureed a mix of a good amount of tomatillos, green chilies, oregano and red onions together, then sauteed that with just a little oil (corn, of course) along with salt, cumin, and coriander. I let those cook a few minutes then added them into the pot with the corn. That all simmered away until the corn was nearly done, at which point I added a good amount of finely sliced red cabbage, and let it cook until that was all limp and melded into the pot. To finish, I added a bit of lime juice for brightness – it doesn’t need much as the tomatillos provide a bit of acidity already, and added salt to taste. Topped it off with sour cream and some finely ground toasted squash seeds.

Chicago Pizzetta

Not much to say here – a mini-version of my take on Chicago style pizza, just sans the sausage because of the no red meat requests.

Jack Daniels BBQ Chicken and Esquites

Couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use some corn liquor – and Jack Daniels is pretty much the only one available here – it’s not pure corn, but a bit over 50%, so it works for me. I made a barbecue sauce by blending together onion, garlic, red chilies, tomato, worcestershire sauce, molasses, brown sugar, tomato paste, Jack Daniels, a touch of liquid smoke, salt and pepper, and simmering it all together for about 20 minutes. Adjusted the seasoning, marinated the chicken in it for the day, then seared the breasts in hot cast iron pans, put them in the oven to finish, basting occasionally with more sauce, and then a bit more at the end to serve. On the side, we had to have some kind of visible corn, no? Esquites, which I’ve made before – fresh corn cut off the cob cooked in hot butter with some guajillo chili powder, epazote, and salt, finished with lemon juice. For color, I added in some chopped green onions as well while they were cooking.

Corncob Molasses Ice Cream

I’ve mentioned using corncobs to make corn stock several times in the past. I knew I wanted to do something with them, the question was, what? At some point, I thought about infusing milk and cream with the corncobs and making a corncob flavored ice cream. It was intriguing enough to keep thinking in that line, but didn’t sound quite like what I wanted. I started thinking about molasses as an accompaniment, or maybe something more sorbet-like – and then hit on the idea of corncob molasses, which, not surprisingly, turns out not to be an original idea – in fact, it seems to have been a bit of a staple in pioneer U.S. cooking, referenced in several old texts and a recipe published in 1906 in the Inglenook Cookbook from the Sisters of the Brethren Church, in Pennsylvania. It all came together quickly at that point – cutting the cobs into 1″ rounds, simmering them for an hour in water to cover, then straining the liquid, adding dark brown sugar to it (roughly 2:1 water to sugar), and boiling it all away until I ended up with a thin syrup, roughly the consistency of honey (next time, I think I’d boil it down even further to get a thick syrup). I then made an ice cream base – 1½ cups of heavy cream, 1½ cups of whole milk, and 1 cup of brown sugar, all heated together. Whipped three eggs until they were fairly stiff, tempered in some of the hot liquid, then all back into the pot and continued over low heat until it just coated the back of a spoon without running. Off the heat, strained into a metal bowl set in ice water, mixed in a cup of the corncob molasses, and kept stirring it to cool it down rapidly. Then chilled it in the refrigerator, ran it through the ice cream maker, and voila! I served it up with a simple blueberry jam – roughly 2:1 blueberries to sugar cooked down. Hmmm, maybe that was my favorite course… I do like me my ice cream… and corn and blueberries work really well together….

So, on to, perhaps, some more key ingredient dinners – if the Iron Chefs can get away with it, why can’t I?

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