Friday, November 21, 2014

The First Hard Freeze

We received our first hard freeze earlier this week, when the thermometer dipped into the 20s. We harvested everything usable the day before the freeze was predicted, and now have the refrigerator stocked with lettuces, sorrel, and a nice mess of turnip greens.

With the arrival of the cold, the garden is pretty much done for the season, although the Lacinato kale is unfazed. This extremely hardy variety will continue to provide leaves for cooking off and on for most of the winter, although it will only grow if the weather warms up sufficiently. This variety is sometimes called "dinosaur kale" in the produce market, because the leaves look like they might be modeled after a reptile's skin. They are thick, dark green and highly nutritious. Kale can be used in any recipe calling for collards, turnip greens or other cooked greens.

This is the time of year to think about comfort foods loaded with rich sauces, protein and pasta or other carbs. Two of the most difficult things to provide from a home-scale garden are protein and grains. Both need to be produced in significant quantities, even for a small household, and sufficient space is seldom available. Legumes provide one of the most economical sources of protein, especially when purchased in dry form in the bulk section of the market. I always stock up on several kinds of beans, field peas, and peanuts in the fall, when the new crops will have arrived in the market.

Grains are also cheap when purchased in bulk. Rice, flour and cornmeal are the primary ones around our house. Gluten-free eaters will want multiple kinds of rice, and alternative grains such as quinoa, amaranth, and millet.

With regard to flour and cornmeal, as a native Southerner I insist upon White Lily flour for biscuits and pastry crust. I use all-purpose flour for everything else. I also prefer White Lily self-rising cornmeal mix for making cornbread that approximates my mother's version. It also makes a crispy breading for okra or fritters. I like coarse organic yellow cornmeal for polenta, but the grains are too large for breading, as they absorb too much grease and become gluey.

Mom's cornbread is easy and delicious, thanks to the White Lily, but it is not truly an old-fashioned recipe. To duplicate my grandmother's cornbread requires more effort. First, it is necessary to locate cornmeal made from regionally grown Tennessee Red Cob corn. This yellow corn was the only one my grandfather grew for making meal. It is still around, but difficult to find and expensive. Next, you will require a package of Benton's bacon. This is easy to come by, and is produced from the same type of heritage breed hogs my grandfather raised. You also need farm-fresh, free range eggs and real churned buttermilk. Both are now readily available. (Find all these products at Three Rivers Market.)

Old-Fashioned Tennessee Cornbread

In a 9-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, cook three strips of bacon until crisp, remove them from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Save the bacon for another use, or crumble it and add it to the cornbread before adding the hot bacon drippings as described below. Reserve the drippings in the skillet. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Set the skillet in the oven to heat while you prepare the cornbread batter.

In a bowl combine 1 cup of cornmeal, 1/2 cup of White Lily flour (NOT self-rising), 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix these ingredients together with a wire whisk. In a separate small bowl, combine one whole egg and 1/2 cup of buttermilk, whisking to combine well. Make a well in the cornmeal mixture and add the liquid, whisking with a few quick strokes. Add more buttermilk if necessary to make a smooth batter. Using protective gloves, carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour the bacon drippings into the batter. Quickly set the skillet on the stovetop and whisk the batter to combine. Pour the batter immediately into the hot skillet. It should sizzle. Return the skillet to the oven and bake until lightly browned on top, about 35 minutes. The cornbread should move when the skillet it shaken gently. Remove from the oven and tip out the cornbread on to a heatproof plate. Serve immediately.

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