Friday, May 17, 2013

Chorizo Corn Muffin With a Smoked Chipotle Center

Fig.1. Hot muffins: Warning, center is spicy.

I love corn, chorizo, green onions, and smoked chipotle peppers, so it occurred to me in the middle of the night a few weeks ago to make a muffin out of all these things.
While I’ve used corn meal often in the past when making polenta, corn bread is a different thing altogether, and as such, corn meal research was in my future. 
Most corn bread recipes in the American South call for stone ground cornmeal, which means that the hull and the germ of the corn are left in during the grind, and whole corn means more corn flavor. There are different grinds when it comes to corn meal and I tried this recipe with both a course grind, and a fine grind: the fine grind produced a softer, more enjoyable muffin.  Course grinds can be fun, especially if you're going old school and making corn bread in a cast iron skillet. There's a textural difference when using course-grind corn meal, evident with every crunch and in the many pieces of ground corn that will lodge between your teeth.
Decades ago in Italy, before foods became overly processed and people knew how to use their teeth, all polenta was course grind, (especially in the farmlands where mills comprised of 2 large stone disks pulled by oxen.) because the corn was course (a texture akin to small pebbles), the polenta had to be cooked for a long time (45 minutes to an hour) in order to soften and turn to mush.  This is why older Italian ladies will tell you that making polenta builds your arm muscles, as the polenta needed to be stirred constantly. This might have been true 50 years ago, but today, with corn meal ground so fine it could slip through an hourglass in 60 seconds flat, one just needs to add water and it's ready. (How did this become about Italy when it was supposed to be about corn bread in the American South? A trip south of the Mason-Dixon is in my future.)

Chorizo and Smoked Chipotle Corn Muffin
Makes 12

The idea for the smoked chipotle center was inspired by a visit to Tim Horton’s no less. They had a muffin on display whose center contained a menacing ‘fruit explosion’.  Because I ponder upon my recipes for days, weeks and months at a time, the smoked chipotle jelly inserted itself into the mental construct of my imagined corn muffin. There’s something to be said about imagination and cooking: the cook gets to create that which he imagines; what was once a dream becomes reality. (Dam this god complex of mine!) These muffins are great for those outdoor BBQ parties and pairs well with meat and beer. They also freeze well for up to 3 months or so.

Fig.2. Ingredients at the ready


20oz or 3 cups of finely, stone ground cornmeal
½ cup bread flour
2 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp sugar
2 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 eggs
14oz or 398ml creamed corn (I use a 398ml can)
2 cups of chopped chorizo (ask a Portuguese friend where to get this, it’s not hard to find)
1 cup green onions, chopped small
12 small pieces of smoked chipotle peppers in adobe sauce, the size depends on how much heat you can handle. (you can get this at any grocery store in the ‘Latin’ section)


Spray the muffin tin with a none stick spray (make sure you spray the inside rounds as well as the top of the tin) and insert a muffin wrapper in each round. Preheat over to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, add the ground cornmeal, bread flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda and whisk all the dry ingredients till combined.  In another large bowl, add the buttermilk, eggs, and creamed corn and mix well until all combined. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and fold it all together. Fold in the chopped chorizo and the green onions.  Scoop the batter into the lined muffin tin. (I use an ice cream scooper for this.) Top the center of each muffin with a piece of the smoked chipotle pepper, press it in a little. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out with some crumbs attached.

Fig.3. The wet ingredients. Mental note: try this on Shepard's Pie.

Fig.4. Had to put another picture because they're so nice.

Fig.5. Richard Nelson's American Cooking.  
The book above (Fig.5.) is entitled American Cooking by Richard Nelson. Nelson "championed the cause of good cooking in the United States", (James Beard) during a time when the aroma of quick-and-easy, frozen food began emanating from TV Dinners across America. Nelson's book has some great corn-meal recipes: Tamale Pie, Cornmeal Mush, Corn Chili Bread, Cornmeal Dumplings, Cornmeal and Parmesan Cheese, Grits, Johnny Cakes, Spoon Bread, Corn Bread With Sausage, and Texas Skillet Corn Meal. A great book if American style cooking interests you.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Daniel Defoe, Cornmeal, Crusoe And Polenta

Fig.1. Crusoe sits down to eat with some dinner guests, notice the bread on the table.

A few weeks ago, while Facebooking, I stumbled upon a wonderful photographer by the name of Dinah Freed.  Her photo series, entitled Fictitious Dishes, was imbued of a subject matter I myself dabbled in, albeit on a literary level.  Freed’s work involves taking photos of food and meal settings based on a series of books; have a look and you’ll better understand.
During my time at Concordia University, I was enrolled in a class entitled, Literature During the Restoration Period.  One of this class’s assignments involved an analysis of Daniel Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe, which I read cover to cover with all the proper haste attributed to a body of work as enthralling, such as it is.  What stood out first and foremost for me amidst Crusoe’s island seclusion was how he fed himself, and the lengths to which Defoe went to make certain his literary food content was accurate.  With this in mind, I proposed to my professor that I might analyze Defoe’s melding of food, sustenance and protagonist, and how it all fit in within the pretext of a British movement bent on colonizing everything in its path. She said yes.
To make a long story short, Crusoe was shipwrecked on an island.  He had a choice: he could either live or die; Crusoe chose the path all conquering Brits took 400 years ago, and took it upon himself to colonize his island. 
One of the first things a colony needs is food, even a one-man colony has to eat. Fish on an island goes without saying, but Defoe went further than animal, reaching into the world of fauna: vegetables, grains and legumes all sowed, reaped and harvested by Crusoe. (and later with help from his man Friday.)  One of the main staples in Crusoe’s thatched ‘cantina’ was corn meal.
Defoe crammed Crusoe with the zeal and resolve of a true, conquering British colonist, and colonize he did: the corn on Crusoe’s shipwrecked boat was planted, harvested and replanted until Crusoe had a corn field big enough to feed an entire fleet of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.

However, this was a great encouragement to me, and I foresaw that, in time, it would please God to supply me with bread. And yet here I was perplexed again, for I neither knew how to grind or make meal of my corn, or indeed how to clean it and part it; nor, if made into meal, how to make bread of it; and if how to make it, yet I knew not how to bake it. These things being added to my desire of having a good quantity for store, and to secure a constant supply, I resolved not to taste any of this crop but to preserve it all for seed against the next season; and in the meantime to employ all my study and hours of working to accomplish this great work of providing myself with corn and bread.
It might be truly said, that now I worked for my bread. I believe few people have thought much upon the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, producing, curing, dressing, making, and finishing this one article of bread.
First, I had no plough to turn up the earth - no spade or shovel to dig it. Well, this I conquered by making me a wooden spade, as I observed before; but this did my work but in a wooden manner; and though it cost me a great many days to make it, yet, for want of iron, it not only wore out soon, but made my work the harder, and made it be performed much worse. However, this I bore with, and was content to work it out with patience, and bear with the badness of the performance. When the corn was sown, I had no harrow, but was forced to go over it myself, and drag a great heavy bough of a tree over it, to scratch it, as it may be called, rather than rake or harrow it. When it was growing, and grown, I have observed already how many things I wanted to fence it, secure it, mow or reap it, cure and carry it home, thrash, part it from the chaff, and save it. Then I wanted a mill to grind it sieves to dress it, yeast and salt to make it into bread, and an oven to bake it; but all these things I did without, as shall be observed; and yet the corn was an inestimable comfort and advantage to me too. All this, as I said, made everything laborious and tedious to me; but that there was no help for. Neither was my time so much loss to me, because, as I had divided it, a certain part of it was every day appointed to these works; and as I had resolved to use none of the corn for bread till I had a greater quantity by me, I had the next six months to apply myself wholly, by labour and invention, to furnish myself with utensils proper for the performing all the operations necessary for making the corn, when I had it, fit for my use.
My next concern was to get me a stone mortar to stamp or beat some corn in; for as to the mill, there was no thought of arriving at that perfection of art with one pair of hands. To supply this want, I was at a great loss; for, of all the trades in the world, I was as perfectly unqualified for a stone-cutter as for any whatever; neither had I any tools to go about it with. I spent many a day to find out a great stone big enough to cut hollow, and make fit for a mortar, and could find none at all, except what was in the solid rock, and which I had no way to dig or cut out; nor indeed were the rocks in the island of hardness sufficient, but were all of a sandy, crumbling stone, which neither would bear the weight of a heavy pestle, nor would break the corn without filling it with sand. So, after a great deal of time lost in searching for a stone, I gave it over, and resolved to look out for a great block of hard wood, which I found, indeed, much easier; and getting one as big as I had strength to stir, I rounded it, and formed it on the outside with my axe and hatchet, and then with the help of fire and infinite labour, made a hollow place in it, as the Indians in Brazil make their canoes. After this, I made a great heavy pestle or beater of the wood called the iron-wood; and this I prepared and laid by against I had my next crop of corn, which I proposed to myself to grind, or rather pound into meal to make bread.

Infinite labour is exactly the mental picture Defoe means to paint.  Defoe’s detail in outlining his character’s woes and goals calls to realization just how much we take for granted, as well as what we’re capable of doing if determined and goal oriented.  Faced with a daunting ‘to do list’, Crusoe is un-wavered in his tasks, and ultimately, succeeds in making corn bread, as the author himself succeeds in emboldening his audience with a juxtaposed awareness of humility toward what we eat, along side an obnoxiously greedy approach toward hoarding and conquering other lands.  
To say we take our food for granted now would be an understatement. The hardships Crusoe endured just so he could have bread are hardships still endured by the majority of people living in impoverished countries right now.  An ounce of culinary humility would do us well, and there’s plenty of humility in every spoon of corn meal.

Fig.2. Polenta with liver sauce and mozzarella.

Polenta With Liver Sauce And Mozzarella
Serves 6 to 8

In Italy, the importance of corn bread exists as a testament to the ingenuity of mothers and grandmothers alike.  In times of strife and extreme hardship, no food better served a society better than cornmeal. (Except for Ireland during the potato famine. The Irish were given cornmeal without any instructions on how to cook it, and as such, could do nothing with it. The mass hysteria and desperation of millions of starving Irish dismissed cornmeal as a useless alternative to potatoes.)  Traditional polenta was pretty bland 100 years ago in Italy, salt was very hard to come by, so the nonna’s figured out that tastiness would have to come from the top: Enter tomato sauce.  And since meat was also scarce, the less expensive parts of the animals found their way in the sauce, and on top of the polenta: the offal, the parts of the animal with the most pronounced flavor, spread over a bland base worked perfectly.  And it still works today as most Italians will tell you that polenta with liver sauce is something that most of us traditionalists look forward to every year. The mozzarella is my addition.

1 cup finely ground Corn meal
1 tbsp salt

For the Sauce:

8 cups of tomato sauce (we always use the ‘Sunday Sauce’ when making polenta.)
2 large onions, diced
8 to 10 Liver sausages-out of their casing. (you can buy these at most Italian grocery stores)
Sliced mozzarella, fresh

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot.  Once the water is boiling, add the polenta in a thin stream while stirring constantly with a whisk. Once all the polenta is in, replace the whisk with a wooden spoon and stir until thick. (The polenta should be the consistency of thick oatmeal and it should pull away from the sides of the pot.) Spoon the polenta into a cookie sheet or aluminum rounds (anything thin and oven proof will do) and set aside.
Add some olive oil to a pan set over medium high heat. Add the onions and the liver and cook until tender, do not over cook, about 10 minutes. Add the liver and onions to the tomato sauce and mix. Spoon the sauce over the polenta, top with the mozzarella slices, and place in a 350 degree, pre-heated oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until hot and cheese melts  Sprinkle with Parmiggiano Reggiano and some chili flakes and mangia.

Fig.3. I like using these small aluminum trays, but going old school and spreading it out on a large wooden cutting board is fun too.