Cornbread: Baked Good or Religious Denomination?

Well, it’s that time of year, and “cornbread” seems to be the topic of friendly but intense argument in the blogosphere in 2021. It ranks up there with “dressing or stuffing” among Americans from certain regions as a topic that can be – and is – argued with religious fervor.

A note for my readers from outside the US and Canada, at least those who have not encountered this particular dish before. What Americans call cornbread is made from ground maize. It is rarely eaten outside North America, as best I can tell. The grind of the grain is different from that used for polenta, and the grain is not treated the way maize used for tortilla flour is processed before grinding. The resulting baked good does not rise like wheat bread, and is more crumbly because of the lower gluten content. However, it is a native food, and in some parts of the country, was (or is) the main starch that accompanies many meals. So cornbread is yellow, low-rising, and generally crumbly. You can’t slice it the way you do wheat breads. But we love it anyway.

When you start asking people about family cornbread recipes, the line falls on “sugar in the dough” and “no sugar in the dough.” Some people will allow a little wheat flour and baking powder added in, others add egg, there’s “rye-n-Injun” which is a rye-cornmeal bread, and others prefer fried cornbread to baked cornbread. All discussion of those topics seems to pale when compared with the intensity and fervor that accompanies “with sugar or without?”

Purists insist that “bread” means “no sugar.” Unlike wheat breads, where the sugar helps encourage the yeasts to do their thing and cause the dough to rise, or sweetened breads that are supposed to have sugar (or honey, or molasses, or . . . ) cornbread does not need yeast-food. The chemistry doesn’t require sugars. Hot-water cornbread, the ne plus ultra of minimalist cornbread has nothing but very hot water, cornmeal, shortening (lard, bacon-grease, or vegetable shortening) and salt. It can be baked or fried. Cornbread is for workin’ folks, farm folks, it’s not fancy. Light-bread is fancy, and for special occasions only. Cornbread is what you eat to fill the hole when you start running out of bacon or salt-pork to go with the beans and collards (or turnip greens). Or the New England version thereof, because New Englanders leaned on cornbread for quite a while, back when.

Other people add a pinch of sugar, just because. The result should not be sweet. Others make a sweet cornbread, just like some people add canned corn to the mix, or cheese, or jalapenos, or other things. Flour can make a soft, not-crumbly cornbread, more of a fluffy quick bread with corn in it. But that’s not “real cornbread.” One of the blogs I frequent almost had a knives-out argument recently over sugar or no sugar. This is a place where we can talk religion, politics, handgun caliber, domestic or imported motorcycle, you name it (other than cornbread) without resorting to violence. Cornbread . . . is a sensitive topic among a group of Southerners, or at least people who grew up on “poverty food.”

At RedQuarters, we add a bit of sugar.

1 cup yellow corn meal

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour (not self-rising)

1/4 C. sugar (can be omitted. We leave it in.)

1/2 tsp salt

4 tsp baking powder.

1 egg

1 C. milk

1/4 C shortening.

Preheat oven to 425 F.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add egg, milk, and shortening. Beat until smooth. Bake in greased 8″ square pan in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes. Best served warm with butter and honey, or molasses, or sorghum syrup, or apple butter. Or served with butter to go with something that has a sauce that needs to be sopped up (collards, turnip greens, bean soup . . .)

To me, it does not taste sweet.

Note: this recipe does not keep well. It goes rancid in as few as three days if you do not eat all of it, refrigerate it, or use it in other things (dressing for the turkey/duck/goose/ham).

Edited to add:

“Jiffy” is a brand of cornmeal with flour and other things pre-mixed in. It’s like Bisquick™ for rolls, pancakes, and biscuits, except you use “Jiffy” for cornmeal-based baking. https://site.jiffymix.com/

A “chub” of sausage is the small, blunt-ended cylinder of ground sausage (breakfast sausage), usually packed in a soft wrapper so you can either trim off the end and squeeze the sausage out like toothpaste into a bowl or pan, or you can use a sharp knife, cut the chub into slices, and remove the wrapper from each slice. Then you have home-made, thick, sausage patties.

Summer Squash Casserole

Yes, squash season is wrapping up . . . sort of. This casserole also works with patty-pan squash. You know, the little flattish white ones that look a bit like tops, and that everyone else uses to decorate with? Those. This is fairly simple once you get all the prep done, and you can make it the night before, refrigerate it raw, then bake it the next morning and take it to a brunch or the like.

Instead of saltines, I used Ritz™ crackers. You could also get fancy and use panko, or something similar.

Three pounds summer squash, sliced fairly thin*

Three red bell peppers (or orange and yellow), sliced into strips

1 C. finely chopped onion. The original calls for yellow. I used white, because the yellow onions have been past their prime recently.

Four cloves minced garlic (a large dollop)

1T plus 1t salt

4 cups shredded cheddar cheese, orange or white, your choice.

3 cups crushed crackers (or breadcrumbs)

1 tub of sour cream (16 ounces)

1 lightly beaten large egg

2 T fresh thyme

black pepper to taste (I omit)

5 T melted butter

Preheat oven to 350, and grease a 13X9 baking dish.

Combine squash, bell pepper, onion, garlic, and 1T salt in a large pot with water to cover (I use less water, because the squash have a lot of water in them). Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 6 minutes or so, depending on altitude, until the veggies are tender. Drain very well. You don’t want overly soggy veggies.

Combine squash and friends with 3 cups of the cheese, the sour cream, egg, and thyme, two cups crushed crackers or breadcrumbs, and 1t salt. Mix well, and put in the baking dish, spreading to make an even surface. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top.

In a separate bowl, combine the melted butter with the rest of the crackers and blend. Put casserole into the oven. After ten minutes or so, cover the top with the cracker-butter blend, then bake for, well, supposedly 30 minutes, but I’m at 3600′ of elevation, and 45 was closer to the mark. Until it is fairly firm in the middle. You know, proper casserole consistency. It will be a little moist, but shouldn’t be too drippy.

It is rich, savory, and filling. This is an old school casserole, not one of your light-and-healthy ones. You know the ones, the kind your grandmother made to take to brunch, or delivered to the family of the deceased (if you are in the South or parts of the Midwest). It serves 10-12 people, or fewer if they like it and the meat isn’t too filling.

You could probably add a little bacon, but that might be gilding the lily. Or perhaps not.

*Fear not, this isn’t really as much as it sounds once you cook, then drain it.

Original recipe found at: https://www.justapinch.com/recipes/side/vegetable/bell-pepper-and-squash-casserole.html

Are Pizzas Growing, or is it Just Me?

At brunch a few days ago, Several people got carry-out boxes for their desserts. I powered through and finished mine. This led to some discussions about “I could have eaten this entire sweet roll. A few years ago.”

I noted that pizzas are getting larger. Back in the day *coughcough* years ago, half of a large, two-topping, thin crust pizza was supper, and the rest was supper the next day. Now, two slices – maybe three if they are small – is supper and the rest of the pizza is dinner and supper.

It absolutely cannot be that I am growing older, and my capacity for consumption of high protein, high fat foods is decreasing. No. The only logical explanation is that pizzas are now larger for any given surface area or volume than they were mumblemumble years ago.

Yeah, that’s it.

Yes, It’s Summer.

Cicadas – check.

More people in the pool than in the entire rest of the gym – check.

Watermelons all over the place – very check.

Last weekend I went to a regional Farmers’ Market with Dorothy Grant. We went to do research on “how people move through a crowded market” and to get tomatoes. That’s it, tomatoes. Really. And maybe to check out gluten-free breads, for a mutual friend who needs that kind of information. And perhaps get some farm-raised eggs. But that’s it.

My paw to Bast, it looked as if everyone leaving the market had a watermelon! Watermelons in wagons, carried in arms, filling cloth or net shopping backs, watermelons carried on shoulders . . . Just inside the entry area, a local charity was selling slices of watermelon, and a self-taught gent demonstrated fancy food carving. Dorothy and I both dropped something into the kitty, in part because we enjoyed the man’s work so much, and in part because the group provides a needed service.

Lots of vendors had watermelons, tomatoes, beautiful bell peppers and chili peppers, squash, and so on. You know, the things that are seasonal and ready right now. All the egg vendors had sold out already. I ended up getting mesquite-smoked cashews (they are addictive!) and Dorothy and I tried two different products from a gluten-free baker and caterer. Those lasted until Tuesday, if only because we had really large breakfasts and suppers that weekend and just couldn’t find room for nibbles. You could get everything from breads to dairy to fresh produce to pottery, popcorn, and candy. Food trucks sold coffee and snow-cone-type things. People threaded their way through, smiling and being normal people on a warm summer morning.

I was mildly surprised that we didn’t get stopped for not having a watermelon as we departed. 🙂

(For my readers who are not familiar with watermelons in summer, you do a thump test. You want a nice, meaty thump. Really good, sweet watermelons are messy, so plan to cut them outdoors, or on something indoors to catch the drips. The red heart is the best part, and my great-grandmother on the paternal side used to go around the table trimming the heart out of other people’s melon servings “since she didn’t want a whole slice.” Some things were not worth arguing over. Kids and watermelon are a natural combo. Have the kids put on bathing suits, go outdoors, and enjoy the watermelon. Then hose off the kids. It’s a lot easier to keep the house clean that way, trust me. 🙂 )

Product Review: New Mexico Tea Company

Cream Early Grey, Persian (Earl Grey with cardamom), New Mexico Breakfast, Scottish Breakfast, Ginger Black, Sandia Spice, Monks Grenadine, Bengal Spice, Kama Sutra Chai.

It was time to re-stock the tea cabinet. I get a lot of teas locally, but there are some “treat” teas that I buy from New Mexico. I first encountered New Mexico Tea Company in a small shop in an office-park area in Albuquerque, and was taken by their melon black tea (Monk’s Grenadine). They have expanded their offerings since then, and it’s always interesting to see what new things they offer. They have a wide range of straight black, green, and white teas from China and India. I prefer to get those locally, and buy the flavored teas and tisanes from New Mexico.

Cream Earl Grey is one of my go-to flavors. It is strong, black, and really has to be drunk with a little milk or cream to soften the heavy tannins. The tea itself has a creamy under-flavor to it even black. It’s pretty high-caffeine, although not as stout as Scottish Breakfast. Scottish Breakfast is a solid, mellow black tea that fights back. It’s not for your “just before bedtime” cup, unless you have a lot higher caffeine tolerance than I do. The nice ladies at the shop warned me about Scottish Breakfast on my first visit. They were right.

New Mexico Breakfast is a milder, slightly spicy Earl Grey variant that was blended to stand up to very hard water and to multiple steepings*. This is your “keep adding water to the pot for an hour or so because it’s that kind of morning.” It reminds me of Lady Grey tea, but with a stronger flavor and less citrus. I will probably end up getting this in the bigger bag, like Cream Earl Grey. Persian is another Earl Grey variant that has cardamom in it, not enough to turn it into chai, but enough to produce a slightly sweet, mild cup either with or without milk. I wasn’t sure about this one, but it is a very smooth tea that’s good in the morning or evening.

Ginger black is strong. The ginger almost overwhelms the tea flavor, and it stands up to multiple steepings. I like it, but it’s probably not for the purists. Or don’t steep it as long, and use fewer leaves.

Sandia Spice, Monk’s Grenadine, and Bengal Spice are all black teas with pretty heavy secondary fruit or spice flavors. Monk’s Grenadine has a clear melon (cantaloupe) flavor and tends to be tannic if it steeps too long. Sandia and Bengal spice teas are both dessert teas, or good on cold, wet nights when you want something spicy that isn’t a chai. Sandia Spice on occasion causes me a slightly sour stomach, especially on an empty stomach, even with milk in it. I’m not sure which component causes the problem, and it’s intermittent, so I don’t worry about it.

Kama Sutra chai is a bright, mild chai. It has to be drunk with milk and a little sweetener to get the full blend of flavors. It is lighter than Sandia and Bengal, but has a slight peppery bite like most chais. I like it despite the name – it is not an aphrodisiac.

Please note: I get loose tea and brew it in a teapot with boiling water. New Mexico Tea Company does offer bagged teas if you prefer that. (They are also a little left of center and heavy on the organic and Fair Trade, but they don’t rub your nose in it like certain spice purveyors.)

https://www.nmteaco.com/

*Two heaping teaspoons in the pot, add water. Pour a cup, add more water. This can go on for an hour or so. I’m not a gourmet who makes “proper” tea. This is the method I grew up with and I like the results. You may prefer a different preparation style.

FTC Notice: I purchased these teas for my own use and received no product or other remuneration from New Mexico Tea Company for this review.

Sesame Toast

This is a throwback recipe, one that dates to when cocktail parties were more common, and having a small, fatty nibble in order to cushion the stomach wasn’t seen as death-by-heart-attack. The way I made it served 20, with a little of the herbed butter left over.

2 T butter

2T sesame seeds

4T butter

1/4 teaspoon each marjoram, rosemary, and oregano

very thinly sliced bread

Melt 2T butter over medium heat, add the sesame seeds, and brown the sesame seeds. This is a bit like making a roux, in that it quickly goes from “not quite ready” to “dang it, start over,” so watch closely.

Heat the oven to 250 F (a moderately slow oven)

As the hot, seedy butter is cooling a little, cream the remaining butter and add in the herbs. The exact blend is up to you, as are the amounts. Be sure to use minced rosemary or powdered – fresh won’t work. Now blend in the sesame seeds, or stir them in if you’re leery of the mixer sending greased-up sesame seeds flying across the kitchen.*

Depending on your creativity, you might want want to get out cookie cutters and trim the bread slices into shapes suitable for the occasion, making sure to omit the crusts. Or just trim the crusts off the bread, saving them for a different use, and spread the butter on the bread. Set the bread on baking sheets and gently toast for 20 minutes or until crisp. Let cool.

These are rich and buttery. I used commercially made, mid-range brown bread, and had good results.

*No, I didn’t use too-shallow of a bowl for creaming the butter. Not at all. Nor was I trying to find errant sesame seeds on kitchen counters and backsplashes that exactly matched the color of lightly browned sesame seeds.

Marinated Pickled Mushrooms

I like mushrooms, especially cooked in a stew or pickled. When I had to come up with a relatively simple-to-make hors d’euouvre, I went through one of my many cookbooks, found a starting place, and set to work.

The original recipe also calls for some salt, but we don’t use that in anything other than baking.

You need: two pounds baby mushrooms (little white ones. Four boxes the way the local stores package them)

2/3 cup [red] wine vinegar

1/2 cup oil [I used basil infused olive]

2 cloves garlic, crushed [a small dollop]

1/2 cup parsley chopped [I used three Tablespoons dried flakes]

1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard [I used German]

2 Tablespoons brown sugar.

Clean the mushrooms and trim off the ends of the stems if needed. In an medium-sized, acid-proof pot, bring vinegar, oil, garlic, parsley, mustard and sugar to a boil. Add the mushrooms and return to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes or a little longer, depending on altitude. Allow to cool in the liquid. The mushrooms will shrink a lot, so the liquid will probably cover them. That’s good. Store in the fridge in a sealed container until time to serve. Drain and serve with toothpicks or allow guests to help themselves.

Makes a lot. Could be halved, but remember, mushrooms shrink. These keep well, and really are better the next day. Feel free to tinker with the spices and the type of wine vinegar and oil.

Original recipe from: Savoring the Southwest: A Cookbook and More from the Land of Enchantment Published by the Rosewll Symphony Guild, Roswell, NM. 1983. (The book is part of the long tradition of fund-raiser cookbooks that go back to the original Charleston Receipts by the Charleston SC Junior League.)

Country Captain – Chicken Curry

The original recipe comes from The Gasparilla Cookbook, published by the Tampa Junior League in the 1960s. How chicken curry got to Tampa in the 1950s I have no idea, although sea ports are probably the home of a lot of “fusion cuisine.” The original recipe calls for one bone-in fryer. I use two boneless breasts or four thighs. This version is less “saucy” than is traditional, because I needed to use a huge onion and two bell peppers. A medium onion and one pepper are probably suitable for most people.

One pound of raw chicken*- no bones

olive oil for sauteeing

One medium onion

one bell pepper (or two)

one dollop of garlic or to taste (1 T or so, less if you don’t like garlic)

one can crushed tomatoes, or whole tomatoes (15 oz or so can)

spices

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces.** Bring the heat under the oil up to medium-high and saute the chicken. Reduce the heat once the outside of the chicken turns white, cover, and ignore. While ignoring the chicken, chop the onion. Add the onion and garlic to the Dutch oven, stir in with the chicken, and cover. Chop the bell pepper and open the can of tomatoes. Turn up the heat on the Dutch oven, add bell pepper and tomatoes, including juice from the can. Run a little water into the can to get all the tomato out, and to add some liquid to the meat. Stir and bring to a boil. Add your spices.

[I tend to use prepackaged spice blends, like Garam Masala, Maharaja Curry Powder, and others from my local dealer. You can find sweeter blends, hotter ones, classics, and the Old Fashioned “generic yellow curry powder” that I remember from growing up. If you have not tried a particular blend before, add a little, sample after a few minutes, and then add more. Thai blends tend to be hotter than most Indian/Pakistani blends, but not always. Season to taste is the rule.]

Turn the heat down to a low simmer and ignore for half an hour or so, although you might want to stir from time to time, and check the moisture level. I prefer a drier curry, others like more sauce. While the dish cooks, make your rice or other starch (for sopping the juice). Also get ready your chutney (Major Gray’s or Mrs. Ball’s are the house favorites), slivered almonds or other nuts, raisins, and other trimmings.

Serve the Country Captain over rice or with bread on the side, with the chutney and trimmings for people to pick from. It serves about six people, and can easily be scaled up. It tastes very good as left-overs, because the flavors have had time to mellow and blend.

*I have used pork, once, just because I was feeling curious. It was OK, but the texture didn’t seem right.

** If the chicken is still a little frozen, use a knife. If it is fully thawed, scissors are a lot easier than a knife, and probably a little safer since they are less prone to slip on uneven pieces of slippery meat. But that’s just me. Wash the scissors very carefully before and after cutting up chicken, to be sure to get all the bits out of the hinge.

Smoking (Meat) In the House?

It was, in my opinion, a fad that didn’t die soon enough. The Good Idea fairy should have been strangled before she ever opened her mouth and said, “You know, I bet there’s a way to do that without a big outdoor smoker thing, and cheaper!”

I think it started with planked fish and in-restaurant smoker sorts of things. Planked fish sort of made sense, because it did not produce smoke. You took a piece of the proper wood, slightly larger than your piece of fish, and soaked the wood in water. You put whatever spices you wanted on your fish fillet, then set the fillet on the plank. Plank and fillet then went into the oven, usually on a rack with a drip-pan under them, and cooked. The idea was that the fillet picked up flavor from the plank and stayed moist because of the damp wood. The wood did not catch fire or char. I don’t know if this is still done at home, but it seemed trendy for a while. I never tried it. Buying expensive wood just to cook a piece of fish on . . . Not my sort of cooking thing. And DadRed would probably have turned the plank into trim on a project, with a carving on it.

Planked fish (not to be confused with South African planked fruit, which is a type of dried fruit a bit like a thick and sturdy fruit-leather), at least had the virtue of not smoking up the place if done correctly. The stove-top smokers, however . . . What works in a commercial kitchen with lots and lots of high-power ventilation is not so good in a house or apartment, especially when you live in a place that requires smoke detectors that call for help.

The idea is that you have a pan with woodchips or sawdust, a drip-catcher that allows smoke to flow around it, the mesh grill upon which the meat rests, and then a lid (or make a foil tent for larger things). The smoker works like a big outdoor smoker, although it seems to work at a slightly higher temperature. The smoke flows around the meat and does its thing, flavoring and cooking the meat. Some versions have their own heat source, others sit on a burner on your stove. The ratings vary from “I love it” to “don’t try this indoors in a small apartment.” I’d incline to the latter, but I have serious doubts about charring materials in a steel pan or box on my stovetop. Apparently it works well for many users. I only see the down sides, including cleaning the smoke off of every surface in the kitchen. There are lots of surfaces in my kitchen.

One thing I probably should mention if you are inclined to cook brisket in a smoker. Check the size of the brisket in the instructions. Down here, brisket is assumed to be between 8-14 pounds, although I’ve seen 20 lb monsters and larger. (One of the guys said, after we wrestled the beast into the smoker, “Well, we know what happened to Babe the Blue Ox.”) Back east, especially in the northeast, briskets tend to be no larger than 1-3 pounds. You have to specially request a larger brisket. I had no idea of this until reading a thread on-line about ruining briskets and the young lady could not figure out what the problem was. People went over the rub, the cooking time and temp, and finally someone asked how large the brisket was. “A pound and a half.” No wonder she ended up with a lump of charcoal instead of a tender brisket! That was the largest to be found in the NY-NJ area grocery stores. This might be changing, but do check the size of your meat.

Tuna Steak

I walked into the kitchen and beheld a slab-o-meat. It appeared somewhat like a large pork chop, without the little fat rind. And was pink-white instead of pork colored. Not pork, but Chicken-of-the-Sea, aka tuna. A large (on sale) tuna steak had followed Dad home from the market.

So, what to do with said tuna? Oil it lightly, season it lightly, and cook seemed to be the order of the day. However, the cooking instructions ranged from “we don’t own one of those” to “that might be a little excessive.” The steak was only about half an inch thick, and some of the cook book steaks were two inches thick. A compromise seemed to be in order.

Oven – 400 F.

Marinade – olive oil, garlic pepper, crushed garlic (1/4 tsp or so. Not much, in other words), two dribbles of lemon juice (enough for a little flavor, but not enough to pre-cook the tuna).

  1. Line a baking sheet with foil. This is mostly for ease of clean-up.
  2. Blend ingredients for marinade. I used about 1/3 cup oil, a few shakes of garlic pepper, a small dollop of minced fresh garlic, and a little citrus juice. Looking back, I’d skip the garlic pepper and use flavored olive oil instead, with lime as my citrus. Or skip the citrus and use some basil as the herb.
  3. Brush both sides of the meat with the marinade, then put the steak(s) on the baking sheet and let rest on the counter at room temperature for 15-20 minutes, or longer if your meat is thicker. This lets the meat warm a little, as well as flavoring. Just before I put it in the oven, I drizzled the rest of the marinade on the tuna, making sure to lift the steak and get oil under it. [Ease of clean-up and serving].
  4. Bake at 400 F for about ten minutes, or until the temperature is at least 145F on a meat thermometer. Ideally, the fish will flake easily but still be pink. Because of some family medical concerns, this tuna got cooked to medium (white all the way through). It was still flaky but a little firm. Some instructions want the tuna to be 160 F inside, which is far too over-cooked. It starts getting tough and rubbery.
  5. Serve with the vegetable of your choice.

Tuna steaks can also be broiled (3-4 minutes) or baked at 450 F (four to five minutes). If you have a fish-basket, they could also be grilled, but I’d go with a thicker piece of meat than we had if you want to try that option.