Fritters: A Short Endorsement

Pan-frying corn frittersA simple definition.  Fritters are made from a simple batter that is garnished with meat or vegetables or fruit and then fried, either in a pan or deep-fryer.  They can be sweet or savoury.

Why you should care about fritters.  Fritters are an important preparation to master for the following reasons: you almost always have the ingredients needed to make them; they fry up quickly; and they are a fantastic way to use leftovers, whether it’s meat like ground beef or ham, or sautéed vegetables, or cheese.

The fritter continuum.  The degree to which the batter or the interior garnishes dominate varies widely.  Let’s explore the two ends of the Fritter Continuum using corn fritters.

You can make a corn fritter by taking the kernels from one ear of corn and stirring in an egg, a tablespoon each of flour and cornmeal, and a pinch of salt.  This will make a fritter that is mostly comprised of fresh corn, barely held together by egg and starch.  This fritter is relatively dense, and gives the eater the satisfaction of popping several kernels of corn in one bite.  This style of fritter is typically pan-fried or griddled.  It is pictured above.

Corn fritters and saladOn the other hand, you could make a batter by stirring together a cup of flour, two tablespoons of baking powder, a cup of milk, a couple eggs, then fold some corn kernels into the batter.  This would make a light, doughy fritter studded with yellow kernels of corn.  This style of fritter is usually deep-fried.  At right.

The next time you are craving bar food, if you have eggs in your fridge and flour in your pantry, consider fritters.

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

Corn Chowder

We’ve been getting some great corn from Tipi Creek over the past few weeks. Then the ever-resourceful Judy came across a farmer who was about to till under an entire field of corn. Needless to say, many an ear has been husked and devoured in the past while.

Corn on the cob is one of my favourite things to eat in late summer – especially grilled so that some of the kernels are black, and of course slathered with butter – but with this much corn around, I’ve been trying some other classic preparations.

 

Flavourful Broth from Leftover Corn Cobs

With all due reverence to corn on the cob, I often find myself cutting off the kernels: it’s a quick way to turn an overwhelming pile of ears into a single bowl of food.  But before relegating the empty cobs to the compost heap, there is more flavour to be extracted from them.

The base of my favourite corn chowder isn’t water or chicken stock, but corn broth.  If you make a simple vegetable stock with onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and herbs, with the addition of empty corn cobs, you’ll be left with a liquor redolent of sweet corn.

Corn and bell peppers go well together because of their mutual sweetness.  I always include red and yellow bell peppers as garnishes in my chowder, and any trim from these can also be added to the corn broth.

The Chowder

Fry bacon until there is a satisfying layer of grease in the pan.  Remove the meat, then add chopped onion, carrot, celery, bell pepper, and garlic.  Sauté until the onions start to turn translucent.

There are many ways to thicken a corn chowder.  I use roux, mostly because I like the flavour, but also because I was forced to make a roux every day for the first two months of culinary school, and I want to believe that it’s a useful preparation.

So I add flour to the bacon fat and cook it out.  Then I whisk in my corn broth and bring it to a simmer so that the soup thickens.

Add corn kernels and cooked, chopped yellow-fleshed potatoes.  Return the bacon to the pot.  Season aggressively with salt and coarsely ground black pepper.  Ladle into soup plates and garnish with green onions.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate late summer vegetables.

Bountiful bowl of corn chowder

Creamed Corn is Magic

Until recently, the only creamed corn I was familiar with was the runny gruel that came in a can.  I don’t remember ever eating it as a child, and actually the only reason I’m even familiar with it is because “canned creamed corn” is used to describe one of the aromas that a corked bottle of wine can have.  I bought a can just so I could have a whiff and understand what my gastronomy instructor was talking about.

Despite a bad first impression, last week I made some from fresh corn and found it sweet, velvety, and agreeable.

If you have a chinois, which is a very fine-meshed wire strainer, you can simply cut the kernels from the cob and purée them in a blender or juicer.  Passing the corn purée through the chinois will remove any tiny bits of the plastic-like kernel coverings that would spoil the texture of the final dish.

If you don’t have a chinois, there is a way to extract the sweet, pulpy interior of corn kernels without getting any of the kernel cover.  First cut the very tips of the kernels off the cob to expose the interior, like so:

Cutting the tips of the corn kernels to expose the interior

Then run the back of your knife along the cob to pop out the sweet, starchy filling, thusly:

Extracting the sweet, starchy interior of the corn kernels

This pulp can then be blitzed in a blender until very smooth.  If you managed to keep the kernel covers out, you shouldn’t need to strain the mixture.

Either way, you now have corn juice, which you will gently heat on the stove.  This is where the magic happens: the naturally-occurring starch in the corn juice will thicken the mixture!  It makes me feel like a dork, but I really get a kick out of this.  Be careful not to overheat the creamed corn as it may curdle.

Now whisk in heavy cream and butter, and season with salt and pepper.  For a bit of texture, add some whole corn kernels, or the tips of the kernels you removed, quickly blanched, to the dish.

A bowl of creamed corn with green onions