Thursday, October 20, 2011

Best. Cornbread. Ever.

Yesterday was chilly and windy and that made it perfect weather for a big (huge!) pot of chili and some home made cornbread.  

My friend Jeff Reed gave me the perfect cornbread recipe a few years ago.  I realize that just saying that a particular recipe is the perfect recipe is fighting words for some folks, especially when it comes to cornbread.  Some foods just seem to divide people sharply along lines of opinion.  Here are my cornbread rules, you probably have your own:

1.  No cornbread worth eating ever came from a mix.
2.  Sugar can be added if you are using it for dessert.  Dessert cornbread is delicious.  Otherwise sweet cornbread is yucky cornbread.
3.  It's better with buttermilk.
4.  It must be cooked in greased and preheated cast iron! You just won't get the right crust otherwise.
5.  I like yellow cornmeal so much better than white.  I think it tastes more strongly of corn, but that may just be a visual prejudice.
6.  Never cook cornbread while shirtless.  Especially don't accidentally lean your shirtless self up against the cast iron skillet when it is just out of the 450 degree oven, you hussy, you.  Don't ask me how I know about that, but I will say I have two permanent reminders on my tummy.

So back to Jeff's simple recipe for perfect golden goodness:

2 beaten eggs
2 c buttermilk
2 T melted butter 
2 c self-rising (Yellow!) cornmeal

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Grease a cast iron skillet.  (I used to use Crisco shortening, but now that I know shortening is trying to kill me, I have been trying other things.  Last night I used a combo of butter and olive oil and got the best crust ever.  The crust is key.)  Put the greased skillet into the oven and leave it there until it is really hot.  Mix the ingredients together without over mixing, then pour the batter into the very hot skillet.  It should sizzle like crazy.  If it doesn't, then the pan wasn't hot enough and your cornbread is ruined and you should just go to bed now and cry yourself to sleep. Or am I the only one who would do that?  Really? Oh, well, never mind, then.  Bake it until it is done to your liking.  I like it dry but not dried out.  You kind of have to experiment with time to see how you like it.

The thing is, I get bored, even with perfect cornbread.  Last night I was feeling cheesy, and oniony, and chile -y, so I added:

1c shredded extra sharp cheddar
1/2 c finely diced onion
1 small can diced chiles
a tiny splash of extra buttermilk

It was, simply, the best cornbread I have ever had.  It smelled so good baking I almost couldn't stand it.  The crust came out beautifully with the butter/olive oil.  The cornbread was moist and the extra sharp cheddar, onions, and chiles created tiny bits of heavenly flavor throughout. The cheese was particularly awesome.

I had some for breakfast this morning.  Cold.  It is that good. 

When I get home tonight I'm going to can 7 quarts of that ginormous Jethro pot of chili so it will be ready to go the next time I want some.  The rest will go into the freezer.  Real convenience food!

Does colder weather get you excited about cooking like it does me?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ham Broth

I am a terrible blogger.  I don't write often enough and when I am immersed in something I almost never remember to take pictures.  Please forgive me, all 7 of you! Let me try to make up for all of my past and future indiscretions with this one post about a useful and fabulous food that no one ever seems to talk about.

The subject most on my mind today is Ham Broth.  Why don't people talk about it more?  I just don't understand.  Yes it is salty and more fattening than chicken broth, but that is because it tastes like ham, People.  Yum!

What do I use it for?  Everything!  I make soup with it, especially bean soups; put it in casseroles; cook rice with it; cook veggies in it (Oh yes, I do!).  My two favorites uses for ham broth have to be ham & dumplings and ham gravy.

Ham & dumplings is exactly what it sounds like.  My mom is not a from scratch cook.  Really.  As a child I thought that Campbell's was the only kind of soup to be had in this world and Swanson were the people who froze our dinner for us every night.  In the late '70s, though, my mom and step-dad bought a farm out in the sticks and built a house complete with a woodstove in the basement.  One day in the deep, dark cold of an Upstate New York winter, my mom put a picnic ham into a huge pot, filled the pot with water and set it on the woodstove to cook.  The smell of that brought me and my sister down the stairs to the basement like in one of those cartoons where you kind of fly though the air led by your nose.  You know what I'm taking about?  It was incredible to smell real food cooking.  After hours and hours on the woodstove the ham fell apart into the broth and mom made dumplings right on top of all that scrumptious goodness.  Hot Dog!  Or, rather, real, actual food!

Years later, as I was making my own boiled ham I thought "Why have I never had ham gravy?"  It sounds really good, right? You should be able to make it like any other gravy - fat, broth, thickener, right?  Right!  It is simple to make and you should see the look on someone's face the first time they put a forkful of mashed potatoes with ham gravy into their pie hole.  You can almost hear angels singing.

Geez, that yogurt I had for breakfast was a long time ago and I'm making myself hungry, here. You know I'm having a ham sandwich for lunch, right?

Ok, Grace, how does one make ham broth?  Put a big ham in an even bigger pot, fill it with as much water as you can get in there, and simmer it for hours and hours.  When the meat is falling off the bone, remove the meat, allow it to cool, and pull the meat off.  I divide it into two cup portions and freeze it.  The skin, fat, and bones go right back into the stockpot.  I put in a good splash of apple cider vinegar in the batch I made this weekend, and let simmer it even longer, until the broth is rich and concentrated and the bones have given up all of the good stuff.  Oh yummyness.  I have it in bowls in my fridge right now.  When I get home from work tonight I will skim the fat off and freeze it for making ham gravy later.  I will also put the bones and some of the broth and fat in my most enormous pot (My beloved cousin-in-law Debra calls pots like this Jethro pots.) with a huge amount of collard greens (and some water and red pepper flakes and plenty of apple cider vinegar) and cook that for a good, long time because I like collards cooked all the way until they are good and soft.  There are only two people in my house but we go through collards like an army.  Tomorrow night for dinner we will have some of the boiled ham which I will pop briefly into the oven to crisp it up a little; collards; and mashed potatoes with ham gravy.  I can't wait to chow down on all of that.  Too snug jeans, here I come!

Later this winter when it is good and cold I will make a pot of ham & dumplings. It is awesome comfort food for a cold, blustery winter's day.