Thai curry with fresh coconut milk

Cooking with coconut ingredients

Su-Mei Yu is right–fresh coconut milk wins hands down over the canned stuff. It is sweet and light and makes you want to lick your fingers after squeezing the milk out of the shredded coconut meat. It also makes you want to cook something really good, like curry.

A pot of Thai curry is aromatic, salty-spicy, slightly sweet, fresh, and bright. The curry begins with a simple combination of curry paste cooked in coconut cream–the most important step, according to Su-Mei. Meat, chicken, seafood, or tofu is matched with the freshest seasonal vegetables or fruit and simmered in a flavorful broth. The dish is finished with fresh herbs and garnishes of lime wedges, chiles, and thin strips of raw vegetables. Ahhh…a whole world of flavor in a bowl.

Thai curry is a culinary journey, which is why it is so fascinating to me. Traditionally, curries were cooked slowly in clay pots over small fires (hot fires would break the pots).  The method was economical and practical: slow-cooking used little fuel, tenderized tough cuts of meat and poultry, and allowed the cook to accomplish other chores as the food simmered. The practice of making curry with coconut milk may have come from the Ceylonese in the 7th century, and it was Arab traders and missionaries that introduced the use of aromatic dried spices. But it was the Thai Royal Court, Su-Mei says, that perfected the making of Thai curry and prescribed the assortment of seasonal accompaniments that provide complementary and contrasting tastes.

Su-Mei Yu has researched the history and making of Thai curry with passion, or in her words, obsession. The word keang (curry) describes the technique of making stew-like dishes by adding ingredients to a pot of liquid simmered over fire. Keang also describes the practice of using coconut cream for cooking. Though the concept is simple, the process has been perfected over many generations of cooks, and it is the understanding of the nature of fresh and dried herbs and spices and how to prepare and combine them correctly that is the genius of delicious Thai curry. Still, it is the slow-cooking that is the secret of keang.

I love reading Su-Mei’s descriptions of traditional Thai cooking, and try to imagine the forest-dwelling villagers who gathered twigs and dried leaves for their fires, foraged for wild herbs, roots,and tubers, harvested coconuts, and combined them to make the wonderful dish we call Thai curry. Su-Mei doesn’t promise that we can have dinner in 30 minutes (though with canned coconut milk and prepared curry paste, we can). She promises that if we take the time to prepare ingredients carefully and cook them slowly, the results will be well worth the effort.

Thai curry pastes– a blend of fresh aromatics and dried spices–are made with a mortar and pestle. Ingredients include spices, chiles, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, garlic, shallots, wild lime leaves, and shrimp paste…all pounded together to make an intense flavor base ready to explode when stirred into hot coconut cream at the start of a Thai-style curry. Even a simple curry paste recipe has a dozen ingredients, some of them not so easy to find. Luckily, you can buy good curry paste (I like Mae-Ploy brand) at an Asian market. Here are the most common varieties to choose from:

*Yellow: Often fiery hot, this curry paste gets its dominant flavor and color from lemongrass and turmeric. Paired with fish and seafood; great with vegetables and tofu.

*Red: Colored and highly spiced with hot red chiles. A versatile curry paste commonly used with chicken, duck, and beef. Equally good with tofu and vegetables.

*Panang: similar to red curry paste, with the addition of peanuts or cashews. Panang beef curry is renowned.

*Green: Made with fresh green chiles, and very hot. Used in recipes for duck and chicken or pork and eggplant. Serve with fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of coconut cream.

*Masmun or Massaman: Highly aromatic, this curry paste includes more dried spices than other types and is reminiscent of Indian curry.

Notes on ingredients: Su-Mei Yu is very helpful about explaining the role of various ingredients as well as suggesting substitutions. Thai curry recipes often call for wild (Kaffir) limes or bitter orange. Substitute unripe orange, kumquat, or regular lime juice for a sour-bitter flavor, and lime zest in place of lime leaves. Palm sugar is fruity, sweet, and floral. It contributes more flavor than refined sugar. You can substitute maple syrup, light brown sugar, or Mexican cane sugar for palm sugar. Tamarind supplies a sweet-sour-fruity flavor, with a musty undertone like sumac berries. Su-Mei suggests making a puree of tart dried apricots soaked in unsweetened sour cherry juice to duplicate the flavor. Asian markets sell tamarind concentrate as well as blocks of compressed tamarind. To make thick tamarind juice, soak a chunk of compressed tamarind in hot water (1:4 ratio). When it has softened, mash the pulp to help it dissolve. Remove any seeds, and stir until the liquid looks like thin applesauce. Store in the refrigerator.

Meat and Poultry: Su-Mei explains that Thais prefer bone-in meat and poultry, and use a heavy Chinese cleaver to whack it into small portions before cooking (keep one hand behind your back). If you opt for more convenient and quicker-cooking boneless cuts, she suggests slicing across the grain into 1 to 1 1/2-inch strips, and cutting into bite-size pieces for use in curries. Adjust cooking times for thinner or thicker pieces.

Quick Red Chicken Curry

Thai Red Curry

When I first started to make Thai curry, I used directions found in Alford and Duguid’s collection of Southeast Asian recipes, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, for Quick Red Chicken Curry, which they call a “shortcut with culinary traditions.” Using freshly prepared or canned coconut milk, store-bought chile paste, and boneless chicken, this curry is easy to prepare and adaptable. Once you are familiar with the process, you can mix and match ingredients to create many curry variations. If you make your own fresh coconut milk, you will have enough cream and milk to supply all the liquid needed. If you use canned coconut milk, you can use chicken or vegetable broth for the extra liquid.

Ingredients: 1 14-oz can coconut milk (or 1 cup freshly made thick coconut cream and 1 cup thinner coconut milk), 1 to 4 Tbs red curry paste (how much spice do you like?), 1 lb boneless chicken thighs cut into 1-inch bite-size pieces, 1 to 1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or more fresh coconut milk), 1 Tbs fish sauce, 1 to 3 tsp palm or brown sugar, 1 onion cut in thin wedges, 3 cups vegetables cut in 1/2-inch dice or wedges (choose one or two: Thai or Asian eggplant, winter squash, potato, mushrooms…), 2 Tbs thick tamarind juice, zest of one lime (unless you have 3 or 4 wild lime leaves on hand…)

In a wok or heavy saucepan, heat 1/2 cup coconut cream (thick part at the top of the can) over medium heat. When it bubbles, whisk in the red curry paste and stir 1 to 2 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup coconut cream and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until the oil begins to separate and tiny bubbles the color of the chile paste cover the surface.

Add the chicken, stirring to coat the pieces, and cook over high heat until the chicken changes color, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the coconut milk and broth (2 cups total), fish sauce, and sugar; taste and add more fish sauce or sea salt as needed (saltiness of curry pastes and chicken broth are variable!). Bring to a simmer and stir in the onion and other vegetables. Adjust the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken is cooked and the vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the tamarind and lime zest. Lower the heat and cook 1 minute. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.

Garnish with fresh cilantro, fresh Thai or Italian basil, coconut cream or toasted coconut flakes, thinly sliced hot chiles, thinly sliced cucumber, arugula leaves

Red Curry with Roasted Pork

Possible Coconut Curry Additions

Su-Mei Yu says that roasted meats and chicken are a treat in Thai curries, and her book includes a recipe for a roasted pork and green banana curry. I improvised with some leftover roasted pork tenderloin and sweet potatoes, to delicious results.

Ingredients: 1 lb pork tenderloin, 4 cups sweet potato or winter squash, 1 14-oz can coconut milk (or 1 cup freshly made coconut cream and 1 cup thinner coconut milk), 1 to 4 Tbs red curry paste (or more, to taste), 1 cup chicken broth or more fresh coconut milk, 1 yellow onion, 1 to 2 Tbs fish sauce, sea salt, 1 or 2 tsp palm sugar, 3 or 4 wild lime leaves or grated zest of one lime, 1 or more lightly crushed fresh hot chiles, 1/2 cup Thai or Italian basil leaves

Su-Mei’s marinade for pork: 3 lightly crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1/4 cup pineapple juice, 1/4 cup soy sauce

My marinade: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup mirin, 1/3 cup orange juice, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 2 tsp toasted sesame oil

Combine the pork and marinade and refrigerate 1 to 4 hours (turn over a few times while marinating). Heat the oven to 350 degrees, F. Remove the pork from the marinade and roast 25to 30 minutes, until the meat registers 155 degrees F. Cool and cut into 1-inch cubes.

Peel and cut the sweet potato or winter squash 1/4-inch thick slices. Cut each slice into 1/2-inch wide bite-size strips. Peel and cut the onion into 1/2-inch wedges.

In a wok or heavy saucepan, heat 1/2 cup thick coconut cream (scoop from the top of the unshaken can or use fresh coconut cream) over medium-high heat. Whisk in the red curry paste, lower the heat to medium and cook, continuing to whisk, 1 to 2 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup coconut cream and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 6 minutes, until the oil rises to the surface. Stir in the pork and onion. Add an additional 2 cups thinner coconut milk (or coconut milk combined with chicken broth to make 2 cups). Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid to a simmer. Season with fish sauce and sugar to taste. Add the sweet potato and simmer, uncovered, until the sweet potato is tender and the broth thickens, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the lime zest, crushed chile, and basil. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.

Garnish with thinly sliced fresh chiles, thinly sliced cucumber, and lime wedges.

Peanut Sauce

Something else to make with your fresh coconut milk! This is quick and easy, using prepared curry paste and your stash of tamarind juice.

Ingredients: 1/2 cup thick coconut milk or cream, 1 Tbs Thai curry paste, 5 Tbs peanut butter, 1 Tbs palm sugar, 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1/2 tsp cayenne (optional), 1/2 cup water, 2 to 4 Tbs thick tamarind juice, fresh lime juice

Heat the coconut milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the curry paste and cook 1to 2 minutes. Add the peanut butter, sugar, fish sauce, cayenne, and water. Stir and cook until the sauce is bubbling and well blended. Remove from the heat and stir in the tamarind juice. Add 1 or 2 tsp lime juice, to suit your taste.

Curry Ingredients

Cracking the Coconut

“Learning to crack open a coconut is essential to becoming a Thai cook.” Su-Mei Yu

DSCN3761

One good thing about winter is that people go to Florida, and they bring back coconuts. That’s how I happen to have a real live coconut–hairy husk and all–sitting on my kitchen counter. It’s an awesome package–a thick, fibrous outer covering and tough, hard inner shell protecting the sweet aromatic coconut meat. How do you turn this hairy ball into coconut milk?

Su-Mei yu’s book, Cracking the Coconut has the answer. I love reading this book about ancient Thai cooking traditions and the intricacies of Thai curry. Su-Mei writes that coconut is to the Thais what butter, cream, and oil are to Western cuisine, but more than that the coconut is the “spirit of Thai cooking.” The coconut tree spiritually and literally “anchors, protects, and secures the land” and is second only to rice as Thailand’s most important crop. The rich coconut cream extracted from the grated flesh is essential to the Thai way of stir-frying, and just one coconut can provide enough milk and cream for a sumptuous pot of curry.

Even though I often make Thai curry, I have always relied on canned coconut milk and cream. But Su-Mei says there is no comparison between the taste and aroma of fresh coconut cream and the canned product. I believe her, so I gather up the tools she says are necessary to the endeavor: heavy hammer, Phillips head screwdriver, regular screw driver, dish towel, potato ricer, 3 or 4 bowls, vegetable peeler, and a metal spoon. It sounds like preparation for major surgery, but Su-Mei considers it “coconut therapy.”

Once the outer packing is removed, you will see three indentations, or “eyes” on the top of the coconut. To extract the juice, position a Phillips head screwdriver in one of the eyes and tap it with the hammer to punch a hole. Repeat on a second eye. Drain the juice into a clean glass jar and refrigerate for drinking or other use.

Place the coconut on the center rack of a preheated 375 degrees F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature. Put the coconut on a hard surface (preferably concrete) and strike it with the hammer to crack it open. Break into four or five pieces. Hold a piece of coconut with a dishtowel to protect you hands and pry the meat loose with a flat-blade screwdriver. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the dark outer skin off the white meat (I saved these peelings and toasted them on the wood stove…they were delicious).

Now cut the coconut meat into 1-inch pieces and use a food processor with a metal blade to chop the chunks into very small pieces. Pulse and blend until the coconut turns to pulp. Add 1 cup warm water and process for 30 seconds. Transfer the pulp to a large mixing bowl and “milk” the coconut by squeezing and rubbing with your fingers. Massage and squeeze 89 times–this is the ritual number required to produce rich and creamy milk.

Cracked coconut

Put the pulp into a potato ricer or fine strainer over another bowl. Press to extract the liquid. Refrigerate the liquid at least one hour to allow the cream to rise to the top. Skim off the cream and refrigerate the cream and milk in separate containers. Meanwhile, put the coconut pulp back into a mixing bowl and add 3 cups warm water. Repeat the massaging and squeezing process 89 times. Strain, as before, and refrigerate the liquid at least one hour. Skim off the cream and add it to the first batch of cream. Refrigerate the thin milk separately.

Su-Mei Yu recommends cracking and extracting the meat from more than one coconut at a time. The extra coconut can be frozen up to a month for making more coconut milk or toasted coconut flakes. Once you make a batch of fresh coconut milk, you will be hooked and never want to go back to the canned stuff again.

Freshly grated coconut flakes: the pulp left over from making coconut milk may be saved for baking or dry-roasted to use for a topping on salads or stir-fry.  Flakes made from coconut before the milk is extracted have a richer flavor. Roast about 1 cup freshly grated coconut in a large dry skillet over medium heat, shaking and stirring until evenly browned. Cool completely before storing in a tightly sealed glass jar.

Coconut Snacks: Miang Kati and Miang Kum 

Coconut chutney in lettuce leaf

This snack from northeastern Thailand–a fresh chutney wrapped in leaves– is the perfect way to sample freshly made coconut flakes and cream. Traditionally, native bitter greens are used, but tender sorrel, spinach, radicchio, or even bib lettuce leaves all make good wrappers. The bundles make great appetizers or snack with afternoon tea.

Miang Kati

This version is adapted from Su-Mei Yu’s recipe (I used much less sugar). Miang means “leaf bundle” and Kati refers to the coconut cream drizzled on top.

Ingredients: 20 to 24 well-washed and dried spinach, radicchio, or lettuce leaves, sunflower or peanut oil, 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots, 1/3 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, 2 Tbs palm or brown sugar, fine sea salt, 3.4 cup dry-roasted freshly grated coconut flakes, 1/3 cup fresh coconut cream, lime wedges, minced fresh chiles

Warm 2 Tbs oil in a skillet over medium low heat. Separate the shallots into rings and add them to the oil with a pinch of seas salt. Fry slowly, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Transfer to a plate to cool. Add 1 or 2 tsp oil to the pan, if needed. Add the peanuts to the pan with 2 Tbs sugar and 1/4 tsp sea salt. Stir to coat the peanuts, 1 minute. Add the fried shallots and toasted coconut flakes and stir to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Serving: Set out a platter of leaves of your choice next to the bowl of miang kati. Set small bowls of coconut cream, minced chile, and lime wedges nearby. To eat, place a spoonful of filling in the middle of a leaf, drizzle with coconut cream, add a pinch of chile and a squeeze of lime juice, wrap it up and pop in your mouth.

Miang Kum

This second recipe is adapted from a coconut-lime chutney found in Mollie Katzen’s Still Life with Menu Cookbook. Again, I decreased the sugar–feel free to re-instate it if your taste runs sweet.

Ingredients: 8 oz spinach or radicchio leaves, 1 small lime, 1/3 cup chopped sweet onion, 1/3 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, 1/3 cup toasted freshly grated coconut flakes, 2 Tbs palm or brown sugar (Mexican piloncillo cane sugar is very tasty), 1/4 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp red chile sauce, 2 tsp minced ginger, 1/4 tsp shrimp paste (optional)

Wash and cut the lime into small dice (remove seeds). Put the lime and all the other ingredients into a food processor and pulse to make a coarsely chopped mixture. Adjust the seasoning to suit your taste.

Serving: In addition to the chutney, Mollie sets out small bowl of finely chopped onion, lime, and ginger, as well as more roasted peanuts and coconut flakes. A pinch of each is placed on a leaf with the chutney before rolling it up to pop in your mouth. As usual, I would add a bowl of minced chiles to the assortment.

Coconut Sides

Winter in a Pie

Winter Pie

Sometime last fall my sister Liz started raving about the delicious roasted winter squash tart made by our friend Mary, who saw the recipe in The Smitten Kitchen cookbook. Liz made the tart when she got home…and then again, and again. Soon, variations on the theme started popping up everywhere, and I realized this tart was a relative of the pita we ate long ago in Greece. The village women made fillings of wild greens, winter squash, potato, or leeks and rolled them up or layered them with thin pastry. Baked into a fragrant pie, these winter vegetables became a celebration meal. It’s a beautiful way to turn a vegetable side dish into a centerpiece.

I made a version of the pie as part of an opulent Christmas dinner, using a Greek-style olive oil crust to make a rustic galette. The roasted winter squash and caramelized onions called for in the original recipe make a wonderful pie, but I couldn’t resist adding splashes of color and spice by adding roasted red pepper and red chile. There’s plenty of room for experimentation: make the crust buttery-rich or thin and crisp, keep it simple or jazz it up, serve it plain or with toppings.

Galette or tart? I think of a tart as a pie made in a straight-sided pan with a fluted pastry crust standing at attention. A galette is a more laid-back approach: the dough is rolled out thinly in an over-sized circle, and the extra just folded up over the filling (usually about 2 inches–more or less to your liking). One cook’s tart is another cook’s galette, so just call it a pie.

Winter Squash Galette

With Za’atar

Winter Squash

Ingredients for one pie filling: 1 1/2 lbs winter squash, 2 Tbs olive oil, 2 onions, 1 1/2 Tbs butter, 1 large red bell pepper (optional), 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme or sage leaves, 1/2 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, salt and black pepper, 2 Tbs chopped parsley, za’atar

Za’atar: Mix together 2 Tbs sumac powder, 4 Tbs dried thyme, 1 Tbs toasted sesame seeds (lightly crushed), and 1/8 tsp sea salt

Galette Crust (makes two): 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup whole wheat pastry or spelt flour, 1 tsp salt, 4 Tbs olive oil, 1/2 cup water, 1/3 sour cream or yogurt, 2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Rub the oil into the flour. Add the water, yogurt, and lemon juice, and mix until the dough comes together in a ball. Knead briefly until smooth. Divide the dough in half and form each half into a flattened disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate 2 hours to overnight (the longer it rests, the easier it is to roll out).

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Peel and cut the squash into 3/4-inch cubes. Toss with olive oil and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp kosher salt. Spread evenly on a heavy baking sheet and roast 25 to 30 minutes, until cooked through. Turn the pieces after 15 minutes to ensure even cooking. Cut the bell pepper in half, remove the seeds, and place it cut side down on a baking sheet. Roast until the skin is bubbled and slightly charred. Remove from the oven and cover with a towel or paper bag. When cooled, peel off the skin, and cut into slices.

Peel and cut the onions in half, and then crosswise into thin slices. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, sprinkled with 1/4 tsp salt and a pinch of sugar. Cook, stirring for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, 20 to 30 minutes.

Make the filling by mixing together the squash, onions, thyme or sage, and chile flakes. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Roll out the dough to a 14-inch round and place on a baking sheet Spread the squash mixture over the dough to within a couple of inches of the edge. Arrange the strips of red pepper on top and cover with grated cheese. Fold the edges of the dough up over the filling, overlapping in pleats.

Bake 25 to 35 minutes, until nicely browned.

Before serving, sprinkle the galette with chopped parsley. Cut in wedges and serve with a small bowl of za’atar.

Sweet Potato, Red Onion, and Chard Galette

With Cornmeal Crust

Ingredients: 1 3/4 lbs sweet potato (3 medium), 2 medium red onions, kosher or sea salt, 4 Tbs olive oil, 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 8 cups chopped chard leaves (no stems), 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar, 4 oz crumbled feta or gorgonzola, 1 thinly sliced red chile

Cornmeal crust for one pie (recipe by David Lebovitz printed in Fine Cooking, September, 2000): 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup fine yellow cornmeal, 1 tsp salt, 6 Tbs unsalted butter, 3 Tbs olive oil, 1/4 cup ice water

Cut the butter into 1/4-inch pieces and place in the freezer for 5 minutes. Mix together the flour, cornmeal, and salt. Cut the chilled butter into the flour using 2 knives, a food processor, or your fingers. The butter should be evenly distributed, but still be in large chunks. Add the olive oil and water and mix until the dough comes together. Gather the dough with your hands and shape it into a disk. Wrap the disk in plastic and refrigerate at least one hour.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into 3/4-inch cubes; toss with 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Peel and cut the onions into 3/4-inch wedges; toss with 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Spread the vegetables on separate baking sheets and roast 25 to 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until tender and lightly charred.

While the sweet potatoes and onions roast, warm the remaining 1 Tbs oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook gently 1 to 2 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, add the chopped chard and a pinch of salt and toss with the garlic until the leaves begin to wilt. Sprinkle with vinegar, cover, and steam until the chard is tender, about 3 minutes.

Assemble the galette: Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface or piece of parchment paper into a 14-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a large baking sheet. Spread the chard over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Distribute the sweet potatoes, onions, and red chile over the chard and scatter the feta or gorgonzola on top. Fold up the edges of the dough, making regularly spaced pleats. Brush the folded edge with melted butter or egg-wash, if you like.

Bake at 375 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

This is very delicious with a drizzle of balsamic reduction, which is easy to make while the pie is baking.

Balsamic Reduction: 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/3 cup fruit juice (orange, apple, pomegranate…1 Tbs sugar

Bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer until reduced by a little more than half.

Broccoli and Potato Pie

Vegetable Pie

This pie is inspired  by Richard Miscovich, who makes potato pie in his wood-fired oven, and by Gabriele Bonci, who is not afraid to put broccoli (or anything else) on his pies.

Ingredients for one pie: 2 mediumYukon Gold potatoes, 1 lb Romanesco or regular broccoli crowns, 2 Tbs olive oil, 1 or 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 finely chopped small hot chile, 8 oven-dried plum tomatoes (substitute 8 to 10 fresh cherry or grape tomatoes or thinly sliced sundried tomato), 4 oz fresh mozzarella or other soft melting cheese, salt and freshly ground black pepper, 2 tsp minced fresh rosemary leaves, 2 or 3 slices bacon, optional

Potato Pie Crust adapted from Richard Miscovich (makes two): 2 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour, 1/3 cup whole wheat or spelt flour, 11/4 tsp salt, 3 Tbs olive oil, 1/2 plus 1/3 cup water

Combine the flours and salt. Add the oil and water and mix until the dough can be gathered into a ball. Knead smooth. Divide the dough in half and press each half into a 6-inch flattened disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate 2 hours or longer. A long rest makes it easier to roll out.

Put the potatoes in a pot of cold salted water and bring to a boil. Boil gently until tender. Remove from the water and cool. Boil or steam the broccoli florets until just tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and chop (set aside a few small florets for a garnish). Warm the oil in a skillet over medium low heat with the garlic and chile. Cook gently 1 or 2 minutes; stir in the broccoli to coat with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and turn off the heat.

Assemble the pie: Roll out one disk of dough on a lightly floured surface or on parchment paper to make a circle about 14 inches in diameter. Use a potato masher or your fingers (Bonci’s method) to crush the potatoes. Spread them over the center of the dough, sprinkle with rosemary, and season with salt and pepper. Cover with broccoli and dot with tomatoes. Put slices of cheese on top and fold up the edges of the crust. Brush with oil, melted butter, or egg-wash.

Bake at 375 degrees F for about 30 minutes. Garnish with the reserved broccoli and a bit of crumbled bacon before serving the pie.

Thanksgiving traditions

Most traditional Thanksgiving dinners don’t include many chile peppers or curry spices, but the foods we love to eat at this holiday meal –cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and turkey–are just begging for a blast of spicy flavor. Make these little dishes to scoop up with appetizers, serve as condiments for simple roasted meats or vegetables, eat with rice or couscous, and turn holiday leftovers into zippy wraps or sandwiches. So, in the spirit of “El Kimchi” (the food truck offering tacos of pulled pork and kimchi), have at it!

Cranberry Chutney

Cranberry chutney

This spicy-tart sauce is equally good with roast turkey or combined with goat cheese on a cracker.

Ingredients: 2 cups fresh cranberries, 1 1/2 cups chopped red onion, 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1 Tbs minced garlic, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1/2 cup dry red wine, 1/2 cup fresh orange juice, 1/4 cup balsamic or cider vinegar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 Tbs maple syrup or honey, 2 tsp minced red chile (or 1/2 tsp dried red chile flakes), 1 tsp ground coriander, 1/2 tsp ground cumin, 1/2 tsp ground allspice, 1/2 tsp salt

Toast and grind the spices to a powder. Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is as thick as you like.

Variations and additions: Add a cup of frozen or dried cherries, raspberries, or blueberries…chunks of orange segments, pear, or apple…tomatillo salsa or a dash of habanero hot sauce…it’s all good.

Pumpkin Chershi

Chershi are described as “piquant condiments” made by the Jewish community of Tripoli, Libya. They are mentioned in Jerusalem, the Cookbook in connection with a North African carrot salad made with Libyan pilpelchuma. Roasted winter squash can replace the carrots, and if the salad is crushed it becomes a kind of salsa or dip for pita bread. This piqued my interest, and a new Thanksgiving tradition was in the making. Pilpelchuma is meant to be spicy hot, but may be made with various combinations of chiles to suit your taste. Pilpechuma was deemed the perfect condiment for roast turkey.

Ingredients: 1 1/2 lbs winter squash, 2 medium red onions, 3 Tbs olive oil, 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt, 1cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint, 1/2 tsp cumin seed, 1/2 tsp caraway seed, 1/2 tsp sugar, 1 (or more) Tbs pilpechuma, fresh lemon juice

Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Peel, seed, and cut the squash into 3/4-inch slices or cubes. Peel and cut the onions into 1-inch wedges. Put the vegetables into separate bowls; toss each with 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Spread on baking sheets and roast 30 to 40 minutes, flipping the pieces after 15 to 20 minutes to brown both sides.

Toast the cumin and caraway and grind them to a coarse powder. Chop the roasted vegetables and mix them with the spices, herbs, sugar, pilpelchuma, and lemon juice to taste. Toss well and season with salt and black pepper. Serve as a salad, or crush the squash with a fork or potato masher to make a spreadable dip.

Pilpelchuma

Hot Peppers

Ingredients: 1 oz ancho chiles (2) or an equal weight mildly hot chiles, such as Anaheim or New Mexico, guajillo (spicy-bright), or pasilla (woodsy-tangy), 1 to 4 Tbs cayenne, 3 Tbs paprika, 2 1/2 tsp cumin seed, 1 1/2 tsp caraway seed, 3 or 4 whole heads garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, 4 Tbs olive oil, 2 Tbs preserved lemon

Heat a heavy skillet or griddle over medium heat. Tear the chile open and remove the seeds. Open flat and toast a few seconds per side, pressing down with a metal spatula. Transfer to a bowl of hot water and soak 30 minutes, covered with a small plate to keep the chile submerged. Dry-roast the cumin and caraway 30 to 60 seconds on the hot skillet, stirring to prevent burning. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder and grind to a powder.

Put the soaked chile, spices, peeled garlic cloves, salt, olive oil, and preserved lemon in a food processor and process to a smooth paste.

*Mellow the flavor of pilpelchuma by using toasty-sweet pan-roasted or oven-roasted garlic. For pan-roasting, set a heavy skillet or griddle over medium heat. Place the unpeeled garlic cloves on the hot surface and roast, turning occasionally until soft and slightly charred, about 15 minutes. Remove the skins before adding to the chile paste.

Sweet Potato Chutney

Here, raw sweet potato is a stand-in for firm, slightly tart green mango used in salads and chutneys in tropical countries.

Ingredients: 2 small sweet potatoes, 1 small red onion, 1/2 red bell pepper, 1/2 tsp sea salt2 tsp minced garlic, 1 1/2 Tbs minced ginger, 2 finely chopped jalapenos, 3 Tbs fresh lime juice, 2 Tbs fresh orange juice, 1 Tbs coriander seeds, 1/2 tsp curry powder, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro or mint leaves

Peel and cut the sweet potato into thin matchsticks to make about 2 cups. Cut the onion into thin slivers and the red pepper into small dice or thin slices. Toss them together in a bowl with the salt, garlic, ginger, jalapenos, and citrus juices. Dry-roast the coriander seed 1 or 2 minutes and crush roughly in a mortar or spice grinder. Add the crushed seeds, curry powder, and fresh herbs to the chutney. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding a pinch of sugar or a dash of vinegar as needed.

Harissa

Ingredients: 1 large ancho chile (or substitute 1 large roasted red pepper for more sweetness…or use them both), 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, 1 tsp coriander seed, 1 tsp cumin seed, 1 tsp caraway seed, 2 Tbs olive oil, 1/2 cup chopped onion or shallot, 2 Tbs chopped garlic cloves, 3 or 4 fresh red chiles (jalapeno, serrano, or other small hot chiles), 1/2 tsp salt, 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 1 tsp lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil or water as needed

Split the ancho chile open and remove the seeds and stem. Toast both sides of the chile lightly on a hot skillet. Soak the chile in warm water to cover 30 to 40 minutes, until soft. Dry-roast the black pepper and coriander until fragrant and lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder. Dry-roast the cumin and caraway seeds 30 to 60 seconds, stirring or shaking the pan to prevent burning. Add them to the other spices and grind to a powder. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the onion, garlic and chiles until soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Use a food processor or blender to process all of the ingredients to a smooth paste. Add a little chile-soaking water or more olive oil if needed.

Roasted Roots with Harissa, Toasted Pecans, and Mint

Ingredients: 2 red onions, 3 or 4 small turnips, 2 medium parsnips, 1 sweet potato, 1 small fennel bulb, 3 medium carrots, 2 Tbs harissa thinned with 1 Tbs water and 2 tsp lemon juice, 1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces, 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint

Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Peel and cut the onions into 3/4-inch wedges, cut the turnips into quarters, cut the parsnips and sweet potato into 3/4-inch cubes, cut the fennel lengthwise into 3/4-inch wedges, quarter the carrots and cut them in 2-inch long wedges. Put the onions and turnips in a bowl, drizzle with 1 Tbs olive oil and 1/4 tsp salt, and toss well. Spread on a baking sheet. Prepare the parsnips and sweet potato the same way and spread on a second baking sheet. Repeat with the fennel and carrots. Roast the vegetables 25 to 40 minutes, rotating the pans and stirring every 10 minutes to ensure even cooking.

Transfer the roasted vegetables to a large platter. Drizzle with harissa and sprinkle the toasted pecans and chopped mint on top.

More Roots and Bulbs–when life brings you kohlrabi

Fall Vegetables and Condiments

I am always on the lookout for more kinds of hardy vegetables to grow for fall and winter harvest. All kinds of cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards, endive and escarole, radicchio, leeks, fennel, carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips…why did I never think of kohlrabi?

This year, when I stopped by a local grower’s greenhouse to pick up some seedlings for the fall garden, she sent me home with a dozen little kohlrabi plants. “You’ll love them! They’re really good raw in salads,” she assured me. I was skeptical, because Kohlrabi is a strange vegetable that grows like an aboveground turnip and looks like a small spaceship with green leaves sprouting out the top…or a small cabbage with a topknot. But, she was right: they are mild-flavored and crunchy–something like a cross between a cabbage and a turnip–and make a delicious salad ingredient. Along with the kohlrabi, I planted a package of seeds from Beth and Annalie’s garden in Sweden for something called “Rotvit” that turned out to be a crisp red turnip.

Fall vegetables have a range of deep flavors–earthy, sweet, sharp, hot, sometimes bitter. They are juicy and crunchy raw; sweet and mellow steamed, braised, or roasted. Their flavors, colors, and textures complement each other and can be combined to make great salads. Since I had never grown kohlrabi before and didn’t know much about eating rotvit or turnips, I went traveling in my cookbooks for ideas.

I admit that I have long lumped kohlrabi with other homely sounding vegetables like turnip, rutabaga, and mangold…things grown by northern European peasants to feed livestock and hungry farm families when there was nothing else to eat. But it turns out that these roots and bulbs are valued by many cultures around the world, and the ingenious recipes that have evolved are an adventure in unexpected combinations. How about a stir-fry of young turnips and dates seasoned with cumin seed? Or daikon (substitute turnip or kohlrabi) and pomegranate seeds with toasted sesame oil?

When I play with these recipes, I use my roots interchangeably. For instance, if Moroccan Date and Orange Salad is good with matchstick carrots, why not with turnip, daikon, or kohlrabi?  Or, how about letting sweet young turnips stand in for cucumber in a Shirazi Salad with red onion, olives, and pomegranate seeds? And, if an Iranian mung bean soup calls for kohlrabi, why not try turnips or parsnips instead? Come to think of it, I’m sure any of them would be good in mung beans salad, too.

Root Slaw

Root Vegetable Slaw

This salad is inspired by a photo of a confetti-like pile of vegetables in Jerusalem, the Cookbook. The humble roots rise to a new level with the combination of brilliant colors, lots of fresh herbs, and bright lemon juice. The vegetables are cut into thin matchsticks, which keeps the flavors distinct and delivers maximum crunch.

Ingredients: 3 medium beets, 2 medium carrots, 2 medium turnips, 1 kohlrabi

Dressing: 4 Tbs lemon juice, 4 Tbs olive oil, 2 tsp whole black mustard seeds, 3 Tbs sherry or white balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp salt

Herbs: 2/3 cup thinly sliced mint, 2/3 cup roughly chopped parsley, 2/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro or arugula, 2 tsp lemon zest

Peel all the vegetables and cut them in thin slices. Stack a few of the slices at a time and cut them into 1/8-inch matchsticks. Put the strips into a bowl and drizzle the lemon juice over them. In a small saucepan, heat the oil and mustard seeds until the seeds begin to sputter. Add the remaining dressing ingredients and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour the hot dressing over the vegetables and toss gently. Allow to cool before chilling in the refrigerator 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Before serving, toss the vegetables with the chopped herbs, lemon zest, and freshly ground black pepper. Serve on a bed of curly endive or escarole, with a bowl of quark or thick yogurt on the side.

Herbed Carrot Salad with Chermoula

Fall Carrots

Warm North African spices meet sweet fall carrots and fresh herbs.

Ingredients: 6 large carrots (about 1 1/2 lbs), 1 thinly sliced small red onion or 2 shallots, 3 Tbs chopped fresh cilantro, 3 Tbs chopped fresh parsley, and 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, 1 cup arugula leaves

Chermoula: 1 tsp cumin seed, 2 tsp coriander seed, 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, 1 tsp sweet paprika, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp cayenne, 2 garlic cloves, 1/2 tsp salt, 3 Tbs lemon juice, 2 tsp lemon zest, 1/2 tsp sugar, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

Make the chermoula: Dry roast the cumin seed on a hot skillet, stirring until fragrant and lightly toasted, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder. Dry roast the coriander and black pepper about 2 minutes, stirring until toasted. Transfer to the mortar and add the paprika, cinnamon, and cayenne. Grind to a coarse powder. Use the mortar or cutting board to mash the garlic to a paste with the salt. Add the lemon juice, zest and sugar and let sit 5 minutes. Stir in the spices and olive oil. Set aside at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

Peel and slice the carrots 1/4-inch thick on the diagonal.  Steam until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes (or cook in boiling water 1 to 2 minutes). Drain well and transfer to a bowl. Add the chermoula dressing, herbs, and onion and toss well. Arrange the salad on a platter and garnish with arugula leaves.

Note: The carrots could be replaced with raw fennel or kohlrabi or roasted parsnips, turnips, sweet potato, potato, or a medley of root vegetables. You might replace the cilantro and parsley with chopped fennel fronds.

Fall Vegetables and Spiced Chick Peas

This salad is adapted from a chopped Middle Eastern salad called Fatoush made with summer vegetables: cucumber, tomato, and bell pepper, but I think it is equally good with sweet fall roots and bulbs. The crunchy raw vegetables pair well with warm, spicy chickpeas.

Ingredients: 1 fennel bulb, 2 carrots, 1 kohlrabi, 1 small red onion, 3 or 4 radishes, 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, whole wheat pita bread and plain yogurt

Spices: 1/4 tsp ground cardamom, 1 tsp ground allspice, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander

Herbs: 1 cup arugula leaves, 1/2 cup chopped mint, 1 cup chopped parsley, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, 1/2 cup chopped fennel

Dressing: 1 garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (or 2 Tbs lime juice and 2 Tbs orange juice), 1 tsp dried mint, 1/2`tsp black pepper, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, 1/4 tsp sugar, 2 Tbs sherry vinegar, 5 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 2 tsp sumac powder (reserved)

Trim the fennel bulb, peel the carrots and kohlrabi, and cut the vegetables into small dice or thin matchsticks. Thinly slice the onion and radishes. Put all the prepared vegetables in a bowl of cold water while you prepare the rest of the salad ingredients.

Make the dressing: Mash the garlic and salt to a paste with a mortar and pestle. Add the citrus juice and let sit 5 minutes. Whisk in the remaining ingredients, reserving the sumac.

Make the spiced chickpeas: Mix the spices together with 1/4 tsp salt and toss with the chickpeas to coat well. Heat 1Tbs oil in a skillet over medium heat and fry the chickpeas 2 to 3 minutes, shaking the pan so they don’t stick or burn. Remove from the heat.

Drain and dry the vegetables in a salad spinner or towel. Put the vegetables in a bowl and toss with the dressing and herbs. Arrange the chickpeas on top and sprinkle with sumac powder. Serve with toasted pita bread and thick yogurt.

Fall Vegetables: How to eat a turnip.

Turnip Salad

I love places where the change of seasons is celebrated by feasting on seasonal produce. In Japan, the chestnuts, persimmons, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and other fall vegetables  are welcomed like well-loved guests and ushered to the table. My own garden provides much to celebrate this time of year–not the wild, party crowd of summer, but a hard-working solid bunch that doesn’t mind frost and fading light. The insects and weeds are gone, and what is left are hardy plants quietly growing their sweet green leaves and roots. It’s the closest thing to free lunch that a gardener gets. The lunch includes a host of broccoli heads and gorgeous purple cauliflower, but it’s mostly about deep green leaves and roots. So, I’m digging in to my roots.

Colorful Turnips

A few years ago my friend Rachel sent me seeds for “Oasis” turnip, along with a rave review. She and her gardening partner loved them so much they were slicing them raw into salads and eating them whole like apples. I was dubious. My memory of turnips was from the years we grew them to feed to the cows–softball sized monsters with a powerful “turnip” aroma. But then I went to Japan and tasted sweet, crunchy turnips–a revelation! So, I planted seeds of “Oasis” in mid-August, and the tender, mild-flavored  roots are finding their way into lots of dishes.

Quick Kimchi Turnip Pickle

White Turnips

Ingredients: 3 or 4 small turnips (8 to 12 oz), 1 to 2 tsp sugar, 1 Tbs unseasoned rice vinegar, 2 to 3 tsp minced fresh red chile or 1 tsp crushed red chile flakes (or to taste), 1/2 tsp sea or kosher salt, 1 minced garlic clove

Peel and cut the turnips into 1/8-inch thick matchsticks. Use your hands to gently combine the turnips with the seasonings. Let stand at least one hour before serving.  The pickle is best fresh, but will keep in the refrigerator two or three days.

Japanese Quick Pickled Turnips

I adapted this from a salt-rubbed cabbage and cucumber salad/pickle prepared by Mieko, a farm woman from Mino, Japan, whose passion is passing on the traditional county farm cooking of her grandmothers.

Ingredients: 6 to 8 medium young turnips with leaves (about 1 1/2 lbs), 4 tsp coarse kosher or sea salt, juice and zest of 1 lemon (preferably Meyer), 2 small red chiles, 1 tsp grated ginger

Cut turnips in halves or quarters and slice thinly. Cut lower stems into 3/4 -inch pieces. Cut a couple handfuls of the leaves into bite-size pieces. Toss together in a bowl and rub the salt into the vegetables with your hands. Add thin slices of lemon zest, chile (optional), and ginger  to the turnips. Serve immediately, or refrigerate until needed. Sprinkle with lemon juice before serving. This pickle will keep for about a week but becomes less crunchy.

*This is brilliant: Make Quick Pickled Lemons the day before you make the turnip pickle. It’s the same process: Cut 3 small lemons in half lengthwise and slice the half-lemons as thinly as possible. Make a paste of 1 hot chile, 1 garlic clove, 1 Tbs sugar, 1 1/2 tsp salt, and the juice of 1 lemon. Rub the paste into the lemon slices with your hands. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and let sit overnight. Add thin slices of pickled lemons to the turnip pickle.

Japanese Sweet Vinegar Pickle

Turnips and carrots

This is another quick pickle from Mieko. Her version included cucumber, bell pepper, cauliflower, lotus root, garbanzo beans, daikon, kidney beans, and celery.

Ingredients: 1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar (I like brown rice vinegar), 2 Tbs sugar, 4 to 6 turnips (3 cups prepared), 1 large carrot (1 1/2 cup prepared), 1 1/4 tsp kosher or sea salt

Bring the rice vinegar  and sugar to a simmer in a small saucepan. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and remove from the heat.

Peel and cut the turnips and carrots into thin matchsticks, 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. Put them into a colander and sprinkle with salt. Mix well with your hands, rubbing the salt into the vegetables, and drain over a bowl or in the sink 15 to 20 minutes. Gently squeeze out excess moisture and transfer to a bowl. Add the cooled vinegar mixture and stir gentlyChill a few hours before serving.  This pickle will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

Lentil Soup with Turnips from the Italian Grandmothers

This recipe is adapted from a soup prepared for Jessica Theroux by a woman named Irene, made with yellow-fleshed heirloom Caprauna turnips. I used my Oasis turnips, but am inspired to search for yellow turnip seeds for next year. Prepare the soup a few hours ahead of time to let the soup thicken and flavors meld.

Ingredients: 4 Tbs flavorful olive oil, 1 medium yellow onion, 4 garlic cloves, 2 tsp fresh rosemary, 2 tsp fresh marjoram, 2 tsp fresh thyme, 1 small dried chile, 1 1/2 cups small French or Spanish lentils (washed and drained), 1/2 cup white wine, 5 1/2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups diced turnips, 1 tsp salt

Garnish: 1/3 cup toasted walnuts (pounded in mortar), chopped parsley, olive oil infused with chile

Chop the onion in a small dice, mince the garlic, and finely chop the herbs. Slowly sauté the onion with a pinch of sea salt over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and fresh herbs and stir them with the onions 3 minutes longer. Add lentils and sauté a few minutes. Stir in the wine. Add water and bring to a simmer. Partially cover and simmer about 40 minutes. Add turnips and salt; simmer 15 to 20 minutes more.

Irene garnished  her soup with a sprinkling of pounded fresh walnuts, chopped parsley, and a drizzle of olive oil. I gave the soup a flavor boost with a walnut-parsley pesto.

Inflamed Parsley-Walnut Pesto

Ingredients: 1 cup parsley leaves, 6 sorrel leaves, small handful fresh mint leaves, handful garlic chives, 1 garlic clove, zest of 1 lemon, 1/3 cup toasted walnuts, 1 small hot chile or 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, 4 Tbs walnut or olive oil

Chop the herb leaves. Mash the garlic to a paste with a pinch of coarse salt. Use a mortar and pestle or food processor to roughly chop all the ingredients except the oil. Stir or pulse in the oil to make a chunky rustic pesto.

Note: The ingredients for Lentil-Turnip Soup make a very good lentil salad. Cook the lentils in 3 1/2 cups water with the garlic and herbs, but remove from the heat and strain off the liquid as soon as the lentils are tender. When cool, mix with diced raw sweet onion, carrot, and turnips. Add the chopped fresh herbs, minced chile, and lemon zest. Dress with olive or walnut oil and fresh lemon juice. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Cornbread and Cast Iron

Green Corn

I have been reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked. It begins with lofty questions like….”what is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system to make it healthier and more sustainable?” And, “…how can we acquire a deeper understanding of the natural world and our species’ peculiar role in it?” Rather than going to the woods to confront these questions, Pollan decided he could find more interesting answers by exploring the “previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen.” His exploration took him to the barbeque pits of North Carolina, the braise pots of a self-described obsessive-compulsive chef, the cellar of a microbiologist-cheesemaker, the sauerkraut crocks of Sandor Katz, the wood-fired oven of “the bread monk”, and a “mad scientist” brewer…all his mentors are people who seek “the deepest, farthest, richest flavors in everything…” I love this book as a cookbook, even though–or maybe because– there are only four recipes. Who needs more than four recipes, anyway? I love it because it makes you want to cook. Anything.

Where to start? “When you find something that is easy to make, healthful, and tastes great, go with it,” say Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, authors of Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys, and Chowchow. Cornbread falls in that category…and salsa to go with it. Two of the most humble, beloved, and inseparable staples of my kitchen are cornbread and the cast-iron skillet I cook it in. Cornbread is easy, healthful, and great tasting…and it’s always better homemade and straight out of the oven. Mix it up, pour the batter in a hot pan, and pop it in the oven. The keys to great cornbread are good tasting cornmeal and a hot cast-iron skillet.

How do you get good-tasting cornmeal? Look for organically grown, stone-ground cornmeal–freshly milled, if possible. My cornbread really took a flavor leap when I started grinding my own cornmeal from homegrown corn. This year I have had Hopi Blue, Oaxaca Green, and Floriani (a red Italian flint corn) to play with. I grind the corn with a hand-cranked mill, or electric spice grinder if I just want a cup or so. The resulting meal is somewhat gritty, so I sift it through a sieve and set the larger chunks aside for polenta. Freshly ground cornmeal is wonderfully fragrant and full of corn flavor. Plus, it comes in different colors!

There are two basic approaches to making cornbread. The more common way is to use half unbleached all-purpose wheat flour and half cornmeal in the recipe to get lighter and firmer bread. The second way is to go with 100% corn, which is more crumbly (possibly gritty, depending on the milling) but very flavorful. Each has their fans.

Cornmeal itself comes in different textures, depending on the type of corn and how it was ground. Dent corn has a floury interior and softer hull than flint corn, which has a very hard outer layer that breaks into chunks (grits). I like to combine different textures, especially when using 100% cornmeal.  Flour-like cornmeal helps hold the bread together, and grittier meal contributes interesting texture.

Basic Cornbread

Cornbread

Ingredients: 1 cup unbleached all-purpose wheat flour, 1 cup cornmeal (or use 2 cups cornmeal and omit the wheat flour), 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 2 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1 large egg, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1 1/2 cups buttermilk or kefir (or 1 cup yogurt thinned with 1/2 milk), 2 tsp butter plus 1 tsp oil

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Heat a 9 to 10-inch iron skillet over a medium flame on the stovetop while you mix the batter. In a large bowl, mix together the flour (if using), cornmeal, salt, soda, and baking powder. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg and whisk in the oil and buttermilk. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and stir as briefly as possible to combine.

When the pan is hot and the batter is ready, add the butter and oil and swirl to coat the pan. Pour the batter into the skillet (it should sizzle) and transfer to the oven. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and delicious smelling.

What to eat on your cornbread: Some folks like to slather cornbread with honey, sorghum molasses, or apple butter. We like to top our cornbread with something spicy–any salsa or chile sauce will do, but cooked salsas are particularly good. Salsa with a smear of soft cheese is even better.

Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa

Roasted Tomatillos

Tomatillos and corn are a good example of “what grows together goes together.” The citrus-sharp flavor of tomatillos makes this salsa a perfect topping for earthy-sweet cornbread. Roasting mellows the tartness of tomatillos, and blended with dry-roasted garlic and smoky chipotle chiles, these are flavors made in heaven.

Ingredients: 10 to12 medium tomatillos (husked and rinsed), 4 unpeeled garlic cloves, 3 to 6 canned chipotles en adobo, 2 to 4 Tbs finely chopped white onion, 2 Tbs roughly chopped cilantro, salt to taste

Heat a heavy griddle or skillet over medium heat. Roast the garlic and tomatillos directly on the hot pan, turning occasionally, until blackened in spots and soft. Tomatillos will take about 10 minutes, garlic about 15. Alternatively, place the tomatillos on a baking sheet under a hot broiler for about 5 minutes per side.

For a smooth sauce, use a blender to puree the tomatillos, peeled garlic, and chipotle chiles. For a chunky, rustic sauce that surprises your taste buds with chipotle explosions, use a mortar and pestle. Crush the garlic and chipotles together before working in the tomatillos. Season with salt, and stir in the onion and cilantro.

Roasted Tomato-Serrano Salsa

Roasting Veggies

Grilled vine-ripe tomatoes are great, but pan-roasted still gives a toasted flavor to this salsa. Don’t worry if there are specks of charred skin–they are part of the deliciousness factor.

Ingredients: 8 ripe plum tomatoes (or 1 14-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes), 1 small white onion, 2 to 4 serrano chiles, 2 or 3 unpeeled garlic cloves, a handful chopped cilantro, fresh lime juice, salt

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Roast the tomatoes directly on the skillet, turning from time to time, until blistered and charred–about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Slice the onion into rings about 1/4-inch thick. Place the onion, chiles, and garlic on the hot skillet and roast, turning occasionally, until blackened  in spots and soft–5 to 10 minutes for the chiles and onion, 15 for the garlic.

Peel the tomatoes and coarsely chop, saving the juices. Chop the onion. Use a mortar and pestle to crush and grind the chiles and peeled garlic with 1/2 tsp coarse salt to make a rough paste. Add the chopped tomatoes and onion and crush lightly to combine. Season with lime juice and salt to taste and stir in the cilantro.

Quark

Quark

Quark is a fresh, soft cow’s milk cheese that has been described as “mascarpone meets sour cream meets yogurt”–tangy and creamy at the same time. It is light enough to eat like yogurt and thick enough to spread on bread (maybe with a few leaves of arugula and a slice of tomato).

I made quark with a half-gallon of raw milk that my daughter, Naomi, got from a nice cow in Marshall. The milk was already sour, so we just let it sit out overnight to get thick. When the curd began to pull away from the sides of the jar, I ladled it into a cheesecloth-lined colander and stuck it in the refrigerator to drain. It was that easy.

You can make quark with fresh raw milk or any store bought milk (lower fat milk yields a drier cheese) by letting the milk acidify (sour) and thicken with the help of a culture. The culture can come from buttermilk or a commercial culture from a cheese supply company like New England Cheesemaking Supply (who also supply detailed instructions). Heat milk slowly to 86 degrees F. Stir in 1 cup cultured buttermilk for every 4 cups milk, or follow directions on the culture pack. Allow the milk to cool to about 70 degrees F and hold at that temperature 12 to 24 hours while the curd coagulates. When a thin layer of whey forms on the surface and the curd pulls away from the sides, it is ready to drain. Transfer the curd to a colander lined with clean muslin or cheesecloth and allow to drain 4 to 12 hours. Refrigeration during this time produces a milder flavored cheese. Scrape the cheese from the sides of the cloth occasionally for better draining. Taste the cheese along the way and stop the process when the texture suits your taste. You can add sour cream to the finished quark for a richer tasting cheese.

Blending plain yogurt, cream cheese or Neufchatel, and sour cream or buttermilk can make an approximation of quark.  In a bowl, mash together 4 oz cream cheese (made without guar gum) and 2 to 4 Tbs sour cream with a fork. Gently stir in 1 cup thick yogurt and 1 tsp fresh lemon juice.

You can make sweet quark by stirring in a little honey or maple syrup. Or, try it with chopped fresh fruit or preserves. I like to mix a little salt, lemon zest, minced garlic, and chopped fresh herbs. Sweet or savory, it’s a great topping for cornbread.