Porridge, or Oatmeal

Originally published March 17, 2014.

Comparing steel-cut oats and rolled oatsThe single most important decision in making porridge is the style of oats you choose to cook.  For my breakfast, the only acceptable style is steel-cut, sometimes called Scottish or Irish oats.

Why Quick Oats and Minutes Oats are The Worst.  Quick oats and minute oats produce porridge with a nauseating texture.  The grains are rolled and cut fine so that they cook quickly, but the oatmeal has a gluey mouthfeel.  My theory is that the extensive processing produces a very fine oat-dust, and as soon as this oat-dust is hydrated, it becomes a thick paste.  Whatever the cause, porridge made from quick oats subtly sticks to the back of the mouth, triggering a mild gag with every swallow.  Perhaps I have a unique physiology…

Steel-cut oats are not rolled, just cut so that they still have the round cross section of the whole grain.  The photo above shows steel-cut oats in the foreground, rolled oats in the back.  Yes, they take longer to cook, but there is little oat-dust, so the final porridge has a creamy mouthfeel, punctuated by larger pieces of grain.  It really is like risotto if cooked properly.

In conclusion: the only thing quick oats and minute oats are good for is making meatloaf.

A simple, simple recipe for porridge is typed below.  Be sure to read the note on fried porridge at the bottom of this post.  It may change your breakfast routine forever.

 

Basic Porridge

Master Ratio – 1:3 steel-cut oats to milk, by volume

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup steel-cut oats
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk, or I guess water in a pinch
  • speaking of pinches: 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • optional: buttermilk to drizzle over cooked porridge (try it…)
  • toasted nuts, seeds, and dried fruit as required

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy pot.  Add the oats and turn the heat to medium.  Toast the oats until you can smell that the butter is starting to brown.
  2. Add the whole milk and salt.  Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer.  Cook until the oats are tender and the liquid has thickened, about 30 minutes.  Stir periodically.
  3. Stir in the brown sugar.  Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

A bowl of porridge with walnuts, dried currants, and buttermilk

 

Fried Porridge
or, why it behooves you to make more porridge than you can eat in one sitting

My great aunt Dorie used to pour leftover porridge into a tray to congeal.  The next morning it was cut into blocks and fried in bacon fat.  Think: rural Canada’s answer to fried polenta.

Fried porridge with berries and maple syrup

Soda Bread

Originally published March 16, 2014.

Soda bread cooling on the deck.Soda bread is plain quick bread, bread made with a chemical leavener like baking soda instead of yeast.

You’ve no doubt heard of Irish soda bread.  The two defining characteristics of the national bread of Erin are 1) the inclusion of lesser parts of the wheat berry, such as the germ and husk, and 2) the use of buttermilk.

One way that my soda bread differs from true old-school Irish soda bread is the inclusion of such luxuries as butter, eggs, and honey.  This is emphatically not traditional, but it makes for a moist, delicious bread.  Picture a fine cornbread, only instead of corn meal there are coarse bits of wheat germ.  The wheat germ gives the bread a slightly yellow hue.

Just what the internet needs
Another Soda Bread Recipe

Ingredients

  • 165 g all-purpose flour
  • 105 g whole wheat flour
  • 30 g wheat germ
  • 12 g baking powder
  • 2 g baking soda
  • 8 g kosher salt
  • 50 g unsalted butter, melted
  • 140 g whole milk
  • 125 g buttermilk
  • 30 g egg
  • 15 g honey
  • 30 g sour cream

Procedure

  1. Combine the dry ingredients, the flours, wheat germ, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, in a medium mixing bowl.  Make a well in the centre.
  2. Combine the wet ingredients, the melted butter, whole milk, buttermilk, egg, honey, and sour cream, in a separate bowl.  Whisk thoroughly.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, then mix with a spatula until just combined.  Do not over-mix!
  4. Transfer batter to a buttered baking vessel and bake at 375°F until the centre of the bread is set, roughly 30 minutes, though exact times will depend on the dish you have selected.

A slice of soda bread, with butter

Squash and Barley ‘Risotto’

Squash and barley risotto with roasted autumn vegetables.Risotto is a traditional northern Italian dish of short-grain rice cooked in broth and finished with butter and grated hard cheese, usually parmigianno.  The “ris” in the name refers to the rice, so “barley risotto” is sort of an oxymoron.  There happens to be an Italian word for barley cooked in the same style as risotto: orzotto.[1]

Anyways, this morning I prepared a squash and barley risotto on Global Edmonton and promised to post the recipe here.  This is a dish we do at Elm Catering throughout the autumn, a re-imagining of the traditional risotto using some local fall ingredients.  It would be a great addition to a Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps in lieu of mash potatoes.

You can use either pot or pearl barley.  Both of these have had most of the bran removed from the grain, so they have smooth, creamy textures.  The barley is cooked just like a traditional risotto, only using a light squash purée instead of plain chicken broth.  Any type of winter squash can be used, from butternut to hubbard to pumpkin.  We use kubocha squash for its deep orange colour.

Though it isn’t on the marquis, the real star of this dish is the cheese.  We use the hard, aged Grizzly gouda made by Sylvan Star.  If you’d like more info about Sylvan Star I have a post about them here.

The full recipe follows.

 

Squash and Barley ‘Risotto’

Ingredients

  • 4 L light chicken stock
  • 1300 g peeled, seeded, cubed winter squash
  • 150 g unsalted butter, cubed (first quantity)
  • 500 g pearl barley
  • 150 g finely minced yellow onion
  • 20 g finely minced garlic
  • 300 mL dry hard cider or dry white wine
  • 100 g finely grated Grizzly gouda, plus more for garnish
  • 150 g unsalted butter, cubed (second quantity)

Procedure

  1. Combine light chicken stock and squash in a pot.  Cook over medium high heat until squash is very tender.  Puré with an immersion blender.
  2. In a separate, heavy, medium pot, melt the first quantity of butter.  Add barley and cook over medium heat until aromatic and starting to turn golden brown.
  3. Add the minced onions and garlic and cook until the onions are soft and translucent.
  4. Add hard cider or wine.  Cook briefly.
  5. Add the squash purée to the barley a ladle at a time, stirring periodically.  Maintain a simmer until the barley is tender, about 20-30 minutes.  You may not use all of the squash purée produced by this recipe, but it’s better to have a bit too much than too little.
  6. Once the barley is tender, remove from heat and let stand for 5-10 minutes.  Stir in Grizzly gouda and the second quantity of butter.  Stir until the butter is melted and both the butter and cheese are incorporated thoroughly.  The risotto should have the consistency of a loose porridge.
  7. Garnish with black pepper and more finely grated Grizzly gouda.

Yield: about 4 L squash and barley risotto, enough for at least 12 people!

 

True risotto often accompanies braised meats like ossobuco, garnished with a mixture of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest called gremolata.  At Elm we sometimes do a play on this and make a “gremolata” out of dried cranberry, walnut, and celery leaves.

 

 

  1. “Orzo” is the Italian word for barley.  The pasta orzo is so-called because it resembles grains of barley.  Isn’t that fascinating?

Cooking Canadian Quinoa

The first several times I cooked Canadian quinoa I was a bit disappointed.  Sure, it had a remarkable flavour, but it was much stickier than the South American stuff I had had before: sticky to the point of stodginess.

Eventually I remembered a lesson I learned from a guy in my culinary class.  He was from Mumbai.  Our instructor was talking about the importance of rinsing basmati rice before cooking it to remove excess starch from the surface of the grains.  Once removing this powdery starch you can combine the rice with 1.5 times its volume, then cover and steam in the usual manner.  The preliminary rinsing makes for lighter, fluffier pilafs.  The Bombayite scoffed, and when prodded he said that he cooks his rice the way we cook our dry pasta, in a huge excess of boiling water.  This way the rice is rinsed throughout the cooking process, leaving virtually no starch left on the surface to make the final dish sticky and stodgy.  But then again, he continued, he’s from India: what could he possibly know about rice?

He wasn’t actually that self-righteous about it; I just got carried away recounting the story.

Anyways, the “pasta method” is definitely the best way to cook Canadian-grown quinoa.  You still get the great, rich, nutty flavour of the quinoa, but with a lighter texture.  I boil about 6 L of well-seasoned water to cook 1 L of quinoa.

The “pilaf method” can yield acceptable results if the quinoa will be served as a hot starch.  If however you intend to serve the quinoa cold, as a salad, the pasta method is essential.

Below is just such a salad: prairie quinoa and chickpeas with red cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, and fresh cheese.

A salad made with Canadian quinoa and chickpeas

Red Fife Wheat: Heir to the Prairies

I consider this post a sort of addendum to The Story of the Buffalo.  I suggest having a gander at that post before reading this one.

 

Red Fife wheat has received a lot of attention in our part of the world.  It is a heritage or heirloom wheat, touted as the first cultivar to be grown successfully on the Canadian prairies. It is not genetically modified, and since it is not industrially grown, it is often organic.  There are many compelling reasons to grow, purchase, mill, and cook with Red Fife wheat.  It is, however, romanticized to a hilarious degree.

We all know that the buffalo was the basis of prairie life before European arrival.  It remained an important staple in forts and trading posts along the various routes taken by voyageurs and coureurs de bois well into the 1800s.[1]

By the end of the 1870s the buffalo had been hunted to near-extinction, and treaties had been signed with the natives.  The next period of prairie history was European settlement and conversion of the native grass- and pakland to farmland, most notably for grain-growing.

Grain is central to the identity of the prairie provinces.  If you think that’s an overstatement, I direct you to the provincial flags of Alberta and Saskatchewan, both of which brandish golden stalks of wheat.  It’s incredible to think, but at one time there were serious doubts that the prairies could ever be farmed successfully.  The first significant attempt, made by the Red River Colony, was full of failures and disappointments.[2]  They had difficulty clearing the land, had to contend with flooding and locusts on a biblical scale, and then of course there were the bitterly, impossibly cold winters and the brief growing seasons.  Most European varieties of winter wheat were killed by the frigid cold, and most varieties of spring wheat could not ripen before the first frosts of autumn.[3]

Despite set-backs, the Red River Colony eventually found a robust strain of wheat, and they were more or less self-sufficient grain-wise from 1820 onward.[4]

In 1857 the British and the colonial Canadian governments both sent expeditions west of the Red River Colony, all the way to the Rockies and beyond, in part to asses the land’s agricultural potential. The former was led by a man named Palliser, the latter by a man named Hind. Though the Palliser report contained descriptors like “semi-arid” and “almost-desert”, the general consensus was that agriculture would be possible throughout much of the region.

Meanwhile Red Fife wheat was making its way west from Ontario.  David Fife was a Scotsman living in Peterborough, and his serendipitous “discovery” of what became known as Red Fife wheat is now a Canadian food legend.  In 1842 a friend of David’s working at the port in Glasgow sent him some grains of a hardy wheat variety.  Most sources say that the wheat had come to Glasgow from the Ukraine.  The story goes that the friend dipped his hat into the grain, lodging some of the seeds in the interior headband, and then sent this hat to Fife in Canada.  Fife planted the seeds, but only one stalk grew.  That one stalk was decimated by the family cow, but thankfully someone managed to save one head from bovine destruction.[5]

These rescued seeds produced hardy wheat that was resistant to rusts and other diseases. It became famous locally, then spread south into the US, and west across Canada.  By 1870 Red Fife wheat was common on the prairies.[6]  While it was not the first wheat to be grown here, it is considered the first distinct Canadian wheat variety.  Where Old World wheat varieties had offered mere subsistence, Red Fife and its scion Marquis offered prosperity.  Reliably productive wheat crops helped entice millions of immigrants from Europe and the United States into the Canadian west, a region that would later export massive quantities of grain and become the “breadbasket of the world”.

The success or failure of a people has always depended on the success or failure of their associated flora and fauna.  It’s hard for us, a supermarket people, to comprehend, but our mode of existence is largely predicated on tiny genetic mutations in the plants and animals that we eat.  The only reason that we grow wheat in the first place is that thousands of years ago a single Mesopotamian wheat mutant held onto its seeds instead of releasing them and letting them fall to the ground.  Normally this would have been a fatal defect: how could the plant reproduce if its seeds didn’t fall to the ground and get pushed into the soil?  Thankfully someone took notice of the unusual plant, and grabbed the easily-harvested seeds.  They probably ate some, and one way or another planted the rest.[7]  Likewise a mutation in Fife’s wheat from Glasgow made the plant so robust and well-adapted to Canada that it became a keystone for European settlement of the Canadian west.

In this context we can return to the buffalo.  Bison and wheat are two sides of the same coin: bison, the wild animal that sustained the largely nomadic indigenous people of the prairies, nearly eradicated by the voracious buffalo hunt; wheat the sort of heir to the prairies, and Red Fife the unique cultivar that appeared to fill the agricultural gap and make European life here possible.

As with the buffalo post, I want to sort of wash my hands and say that my goal in writing this brief history is not to arrive at any kind of moral decision. The mandate of the local-food movement is to know more about where our food comes from. While we often talk about specific grains grown on specific farms, this post was an attempt to consider a plant from a broader perspective.

 

 

References and Other Notes

1.  In 1814 the Red River Colony, closely associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, attempted to take control of the regional pemmican trade.  The violent response from the North West Company is now called the Pemmican War.

2.  Described in detail in this article on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website: From a Single Seed: Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine.

3.  From the entry on “Wheat” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition, published by Hurtig Publishers in Edmonton, 1988.  Winter wheat is planted in the fall.  It germinates, then goes dormant over the winter, and resumes growing in the spring.  Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.

4.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

5.  The online Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Red Fife wheat.

6.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

7.  From Jared Diamond’s brain-blowing book Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of the greatest food books of all time, even though you won’t find it in the food section of the bookstore.  The domestication of wheat is described in Chapter 7, “How to Make an Almond.”

My Quinoa is from Saskatchewan

Quinoa grown in Saskatchewan, Canada

I’m strongly considering printing and laminating the above photo so I can carry it in my wallet and periodically offer it as evidence.

I’ll start at the beginning.  In some ways I hate quinoa.  Not quinoa the food, but quinoa the fad.  Like açaí berries, quinoa is a “super food” promoted by nutritionists as if everything that your body needs to be healthy could not possibly be grown in the province in which you live, but needs to come from the canopy of the Amazon rainforest, or an Andean plateau.

On the other hand, from a strictly gastronomical point of view I really like quinoa.  It’s tasty: it has a nutty flavour, sometimes verging on peanut butter, often with a piquant bitterness.  It’s extremely simple to cook.  So yes: I purchase and consume quinoa.

And every so often when I admit this someone informs me that my consumption of quinoa is disenfranchising farmers in South America.  That my gluttonous consumption of the pseudo-cereal is driving up the price so that Bolivians can’t afford it and are increasingly relying on cheaper junk food.  That the money I spend on quinoa has pressured farmers in Peru to convert what were once diverse agricultural lands to fields of just quinoa.

Then I say that I can’t have disenfranchised South American farmers, because Lisa’s mom bought us fifty pounds of quinoa from a company in Saskatchewan called NorQuin.

Then they reply that quinoa can’t grow in Canada, and that a Canadian grain farmer told them so.

Then we stare at each other incredulously and uncomfortably.

The picture at the top of this post shows the quinoa in my cupboard.  As the labelling suggests and the website testifies, it was grown in Canada.  If anyone is interested, I’m going to get some t-shirts printed that have that image on the front.  On the back it will say, “Save Peru, buy Canadian Quinoa.”

Baked Beans

A lil' pot of baked beansThere is something miraculous about baked beans, or “brown beans,” as I know them.  You take legumes that usually disintegrate when overcooked, and by adding a special blend of ingredients, you can suddenly stew them almost indefinitely without compromising their shape and texture.  There are in fact three magic ingredients in this potion:

  • acids, usually in the form of tomato, mustard, or vinegar, “make the cell-wall hemicelluloses [in the beans] more stable and less dissolvable”;[1]
  • sugar, in the form of molasses, maple syrup or, um, sugar, “helps reinforce cell-wall structure and slows the swelling of the starch granules”;[2]
  • calcium, usually in the form of molasses and brown sugar, “cross-links and reinforces cell-wall pectins”.[3]

Since these ingredients prevent further softening and degradation of the beans, the most important part of the preparation of baked beans is simmering the beans before hand.  If the beans are undercooked and tough, they’re not going to get any softer during the bake!

The Beans.  You can use any variety you choose, but I prefer pintos.  They’re a bit larger than classic varieties and have a creamy texture.  I also like Cherokees.

Use only enough water to cover the beans.  The flavour, colour, and nutrients of beans leach into the cooking liquid, and the more liquid there is, the more you will lose.  During cooking, water will be sucked up by the beans and driven into the air, so you’ll have to top up the water level periodically.

Simmer the beans very gently.  The skin of the bean, called the seed coat, is analogous to the bran on grains like rice and barley and keeps the bean intact during cooking.  The agitation caused by aggressive boiling will rupture many of the seed-coats and make the beans split and disintegrate.

I always get a little anxious when cooking a steak: there’s a correct level of doneness, and to remove the meat from the grill before or after that point means you’ve spoiled it to one degree or another.  I feel the same way with beans.  There is a point in time when they are very tender and creamy inside, but still perfectly intact.  Remove the beans immediately, drain, and rinse with cold water.

The Bake.  One of the hallmarks of baked beans is the balance of sweet and savoury.  Commercial brands of brown beans tend to be overly sweet.  Even the cans that have those little pieces of mushy bacon taste very little of bacon.

In most parts of North America the classic sweetener is molasses (or brown sugar, which contains molasses).  “Baking molasses” has a distinct flavour reminiscent of baking soda, so I use “fancy molasses,” which is much more palatable.  If you replace the molasses in the recipe below with maple syrup, you will have the fèves au lard of Quebec, or the brown beans of eastern Ontario.

As noted above, molasses also contributes calcium which helps preserve bean structure during extending baking.

The savoury side of the equation is always dominated by pork.  Baked beans are a fantastic conveyance for all things pork.  Salt pork is a classic.  I start by frying bacon, then cook the onions and garlic in the drippings.

The body of the brown beans described below comes from a pork reduction, pork stock boiled vigorously until it is maybe a tenth of its original volume.  Besides contributing depth of flavour, it helps thickens the sauce.

A crock of baked beans is also a good place to throw any number of pork bits that might usually be reserved for broth.  Bacon rind, for instance.  When I make bacon I usually leave the skin on during the curing and smoking, because it comes away so easily after the belly is cooked in the smoker. I then have a sheet of cured, smoked pork skin that boosts the flavours already present in the beans.

Truly, truly one of the supreme accompaniments to pork chops.

Brown Beans

Ingredients

  • 1 lb dry pinto beans
  • 10 oz bacon, cut into lardons
  • 6 oz onion, fine dice
  • 1/2 oz garlic, minced
  • 2/3 cup dry cider or dry white wine
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup fancy molasses
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 qt pork reduction
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • bacon rind
  • bay
  • thyme
  • kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Optional: Soak the beans overnight in lots of water.  This will reduce simmering time.
  2. The next day, transfer the beans to a large pot.  Add enough cold water that the beans are just, just covered.  Bring to a boil and simmer gently until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes.  Note that the beans will not cook any further in the subsequent baking process!
  3. Strain the beans and refresh with cold water.
  4. In a braising pot, fry the lardons until golden and slightly crisp.  Sweat the onions and garlic in the pan drippings until translucent.  Add the cider or wine.  Crank the heat and reduce the liquid to 1/4 of its original volume.
  5. Add the tomato paste, molasses, brown sugar, pork reduction, vinegar, and bay.  Bring the liquid to a simmer.  Add the beans and rind and return to a simmer.
  6. Simmer gently until the sauce has reduced and clung to the beans, at least 2 hours.  Add the thyme for the last 15 minutes of simmering.
  7. Remove the bay, rind, and thyme.  Taste the beans and add salt as required.
  8. Eat with pork and toast, as shown below.

A casserole of baked beans

 

References

  1. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 488.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

Split-Pea Soup – Soupe au Pois

Yellow split-peasLast year I wrote that ham hocks are only consumed in one of two ways in my house: either slowly roasted so that they have glassy crackling, or simmered so that their intense, smoky, porky essence can be collected in a broth.

This ham-hock broth is the distilled essence of eastern Canada, and the foundation of split-pea soup.

Once you have simmered the ham hock and collected the broth, here are some thoughts on making split-pea soup.

After extensive cooking the ham hock itself has very little flavour and seasoning, but it still makes for a good garnish.

I use yellow split-peas, because the green ones look like baby poo once they’re cooked.
Split-peas have very intense thickening power.  In culinary school a classmate made split-pea soup for a project.  Everyone had made a soup, and they were all lined up in front of the instructor for him to taste and evaluate.  The teacher took a look at the split-pea soup, lifted it from the table and in one quick motion turned the bowl upside down and held it over his head.  Nothing, not one drop, fell from the bowl, because the student had used way, way too many split-peas (and the soup had started to cool, which thickens it even further.)  Just remember you’re making soup, not hummus.  I use one cup of split-peas for every four cups of broth, and I still have to thin the soup with milk or cream just before serving.

Once the peas are well-cooked, purée the soup in an upright blender for at least a few minutes for a smooth texture.  I think that a slightly silty mouthfeel is part of the character of split-pea soup, so I don’t usually strain or chinois after blending.

Split-peas have a great roasted nut flavour, especially when cooked in ham hock broth, to the extent that sometimes split-pea soup reminds me of peanut butter.  In a good way.  Crème fraîche does a good job of cutting through the nutty, tongue-smacking intensity of the peas.

Split-pea soup with ham hock and crème fraîche

Cornbread

Measuring out homemade cornmeal for cornbreadCornbread has developed a regional connotation in North America: the mere mention of the dish awakens borrowed images of the American south.  I resent this, because I know that my dad ate cornbread growing up in eastern Ontario.  They called it johnnycake, which is a very old, eastern North American term derived (we think) from “journey cake,” referring to the dry bread’s portability.[1]

The bulk of the transcendent cornmeal we made this fall was baked into cornbread and consumed with butter and maple syrup.  Below is my go-to recipe.  It makes a moist bread (mostly on account of the several types of fat in the recipe: full-fat milk and buttermilk, sour cream, canola oil…) with a fine texture and the characteristic cornbread crumble.  The subtle sweetness, distinct corn flavour, and flaky texture of the homemade cornmeal made this the single best loaf of cornbread that I’ve ever put in my face.

Cornbread

Ingredients

  • 165 g all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 135 g cornmeal
  • 40 g dark brown sugar, pressed through a mesh strainer to remove large clumps
  • 13 g baking powder
  • 3 g baking soda
  • 6 g salt
  • 115 g whole milk
  • 115 g full-fat buttermilk
  • 165 g sour cream
  • 100 g eggs (2 large eggs…)
  • 50 g neutral canola oil
Procedure
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter a loaf pan or terrine and line it with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Combine the wet ingredients in another.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry.  Stir until all ingredients are combined.  Do not over-mix.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
  5. Bake until the centre of the cornbread is set (the toothpick test is pretty much infallible) and the top is lightly browned, 30-50 minutes, depending on the shape and weight of your cooking vessel.
  6. Let the cornbread cool before turning it out of the vessel.
  7. Consume with butter and maple syrup, as seen below.

A slice of cornbread with butter and maple syrup

 

1. Civitello, Linda.  Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition.  ©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Page 152.

Homemade Cornmeal

Dried cobs of cornMy bid for Bartlett’s: “Culinary invention has two mothers: scarcity and excess.”

I think everybody understands how scarcity can encourage adventurous eating.  We often say that the first man to eat a lobster, or an oyster, was a brave one, indeed.  But it’s when you find yourself with an overwhelming surfeit of food that you can start doing really interesting things.  The first person to press grapes to make wine must have had a lot of grapes, more than he could have eaten before they started rotting.  And the first person to distill wine to make brandy must have had an awful lot of awful wine.

I wrote earlier in the fall of our bountiful corn harvest, and of a few of the ways we prepared the fresh corn: grilled, creamed, and made into chowder.  We actually had so much corn that we were able to dry some. Lisa set the cobs on a rack in a low oven.  The kernels turned brownish, shrunk into their sockets, and started to look a bit like rows of teeth set in the jaws of an old man.

Dried kernels of corn, ready to be ground into cornmealOnce the cobs were dried through, the kernels popped off easily.  We ran them through a grain mill, and damned if we didn’t have the most flavourful cornmeal that’s ever been in our kitchen.  Between my nostalgia for eastern Ontario (where my dad grew up on cornbread, which they called “Johnnycakes”)  and my background as a line-cook (where I made polenta almost every week) I admit to going through more than my share of bland, industrially-processed cornmeal, so it’s a thrill to have this stuff around.

I once got in a polite argument with a chef I was working for.  He had polenta on his menu, and the recipe he had provided the prep cooks was from the Zuni Café Cookbook, a restaurant in San Francisco renowned for impeccable, fresh ingredients expertly but simply prepared.  The recipe had three ingredients: cornmeal, water, and butter.  I suppose there was salt, too.  Zuni Café no doubt was using the best corn grown in California, dried and freshly ground.  We were using Purity brand cornmeal from a large distributor.  Purity cornmeal tastes only vaguely of corn, and has the crunchy, siliceous texture of sand. It should only be used as a starchy conveyance for the warm, earthy flavours of stock, onions, garlic, melting cheese, butter, herbs, black pepper, and maybe a splash of vinegar.

Having now worked with our freshly milled cornmeal, I completely understand the Zuni recommendation for a light hand.  The flavour is amazing, sweet, and unmistakably corny.  It has an interesting texture, too: a little bit of the crunch you expect from cornmeal, but the grind has made it lighter, and flakier.  While Purity cornmeal needs an army of ingredients to make it flavourful, good cornmeal can definitely stand on its own.

This really was one of the most exciting things to happen in my kitchen this fall.  Stay tuned for a discussion on cornbread…

A fistful of homemade cornmeal