Breakfast baking — blueberry cornbread

The baking bug got me this weekend — Saturday afternoon, to be exact. I wanted something with a crust, a bit of crumble, a piece of baked goodness that I could reheat and smear with butter for breakfast or a snack. After running errands all day I wasn't willing to make another trip to the grocery store, so a quick review of the pantry determined the menu.

The refrigerator contained a near empty quart of buttermilk, a half eaten container of my favorite Greek yogurt, a carton of eggs, and a pint of blueberries. Pantry staples flour, cornmeal, baking soda and salt were a given; combining all of the aforementioned ingredients resulted in Beth Hensperger's Yogurt Cornbread (with blueberries).

Without the berries, this would still be a nice cornbread. More cake-like than the cornbread I grew up with (or that described by my friend Kitty in her guest post), this bread is lightened with a cup of all-purpose flour, given rise with baking soda, moistened with egg, buttermilk and yogurt. The addition of blueberries transforms it from a lunch or dinner accompaniment to a breakfast-worthy treat. On Sunday morning, I toasted a slice in a cast-iron skillet and dabbed it with honey butter, which added the touch of sweetness I thought it needed to pass as breakfast food. With hot coffee and The New York Times, it was a wonderful way to start my day.

Blueberry Cornbread
Adapted from The Bread Bible
Makes one 8-inch cornbread

1 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
grated zest of 1 orange
2 large eggs
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/4 cups plain yogurt
1/4 cup corn oil (I used canola oil)
1 pint blueberries, rinsed

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly butter an 8-inch springform or deep cake pan and set aside.

Combine the cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, sugar and zest in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk and yogurt. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk together. Add the oil and blend to combine. Fold in the blueberries taking care not to over mix, then spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake in the center of the oven for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let stand for at least 15 minutes on a cooling rack before serving.


Clams, take 4

Yes, it's another clam entry. I really like clams, so the fact that they keep appearing in my CSF share is a good thing.  Fresh and briny, a littleneck clam is a beautiful thing to behold. And a wonderful addition to the dinner table.

After picking up last week's delivery, I was tempted to make something sort of unusual, something with curry paste, lemongrass and coconut milk, a dish with a tempting title. But as I've mentioned before, I'm a simple, rustic cook at heart, so I went with a classic — linguine with clams. Chances are good you have all of the ingredients necessary for this dish — aside from the shellfish — in your pantry. Super quick (soaking the clams takes longer than actual cooking) and virtually foolproof, this is an easy dish to pull together for a weeknight supper.

The sauce is light, accented with garlic, given a touch of heat by hot red pepper flakes, and the parsley provides a bright herbaceous quality as well as color. I recommend buying a nice loaf of bread to serve with dinner. You'll need it for soaking up the extra juices.

Linguine with Clams
Serves 4 to 6

36 littleneck clams
1 pound dried linguine pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large white onion, finely diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup white wine
2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Scrub the clams and soak in cold water for 30 minutes.

Bring a large stockpot full of water to the boil; add several pinches of kosher salt. Cook the linguine until al dente, using the package instructions as a guide. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the liquid.

Heat the olive oil in a very large saute pan (I used an 8 1/2 quart pot with a lid). Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the hot red pepper flakes, stir, and cook for another minute. Add the clams and wine. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat until the clams open, about 5 to 7 minutes. Throw out any clams that do not open. Add the cooked pasta to the clams and sauce, tossing to combine. Add the parsley, taste, and add salt and pepper as needed. If the sauce is too thick, use the reserved pasta water to bring it to the desired consistency.


Crab cake breakfast

Breakfast is not my favorite meal. Actually, that's not true. I love a leisurely breakfast, a weekend breakfast, a breakfast featuring homemade pancakes, bacon, stuffed french toast, or slow-cooked, creamy grits. It's the weekday breakfast I'm not so thrilled about. My typical work day morning is sure to include coffee, but not much else. I sometimes grab a piece of fruit as I head out the door, devouring it in the car. Occasionally I throw a piece of bread in the toaster. On a really good morning, oatmeal topped with a bit of cream and brown sugar makes an appearance, but that's rare.

Friday morning was an exception to my hurried routine: I had crab cakes for breakfast. Light, delicate, enhanced with shallot and parsley, bound with egg and breadcrumbs, brightened with lemon — they were fabulous. I toyed with the idea of a crab omelet, a seemingly more acceptable breakfast entree, but I just wanted a delicious crab cake. The beauty of living alone — no one is around to criticize.

Fresh backfin crab meat and a bag of clams arrived Thursday afternoon, my community supported fishery pick up day. I made the crab cakes that evening, giving them plenty of time to set up in the refrigerator, and spent the night reading. And looking forward to breakfast.

The following recipe is an adaption of the late Bill Neal's version, featured in his outstanding work Bill Neal's Southern Cooking. This book is a must for anyone interested in authentic Southern cuisine. Every recipe is a keeper, and Neal provides a great deal of history in this well-written classic. I adore his crab cakes because they are simple, allowing the crab to shine through rather than be overpowered by other ingredients. I didn't have the scallions or parmesan cheese the recipe calls for, so I substituted shallots and upped the amount of parsley. I also used fewer breadcrumbs than the original recipe, simply because they weren't needed — the cakes held together. These are wonderful served with homemade tartar sauce, but I just squeezed a bit of lemon juice over them and got the day off to a great start.

A quick thanks to everyone who commented or emailed in response to my melancholy day. I'm slowly pulling up and out of the downward trajectory. Avocado on toast does help, as does a rather luxe breakfast.

Crab Cakes
Makes 8-9 cakes

1 pound backfin crab meat, picked through for shells
1 large egg, beaten
3 tablespoons half-and-half
1 large slice stale white bread, crust removed and cut into small cubes
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
zest of 1 lemon
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
cayenne pepper

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium bowl, tossing gently to combine. Press into small cakes and refrigerate, covered, for at least one hour. Saute in melted butter over medium heat, browning both sides. If you're working in batches, place the first group of browned crab cakes on a platter in a low oven (200 degrees Fahrenheit) while you saute the second batch.

Serve with lemon wedges or homemade tartar sauce.


Melancholy with avocado on toast

Maybe returning from vacation is more difficult than I remember. I've always thought it was a bit of a downer to return to work, to face up to the fact that I can't continue with the anything goes attitude I adopt on holiday. But I don't recall re-entry ever being quite so tough.

I've tried to be good, to deal with the blahs by hitting the gym every day, but it doesn't seem to be working. I cried myself to sleep after watching the final episode of Six Feet Under on DVD last night. It's a touching episode, sure, but my body chemistry must be wonky. Or I need a major life change. Or something.

What to do in the meantime? I sought a food pick me up. Not in the douse-your-sorrows-in-vats-of-ice-cream-and-brownies-way (though it sounds good, doesn't it?), but in the comforting-yet-good-for-you-way, finding foods that are healthy and good, that fill me up and leave me satisfied. Something delicious and wholesome and wonderful.

I turned to avocado on toast for today's lunch. Thin slices of ripe avocado atop toasted whole grain bread, sprinkled with kosher salt, doused with a bit of lemon juice, and garnished with baby pea shoots. You can mash the avocado if you prefer a guacamole-like texture, add tomato, substitute lime juice for lemon, skip the pea shoots.

It may not warrant a recipe, but avocado on toast is my idea of great comfort food. And with any luck, it may chase away the blahs.


A tomato pie for Art and Gwen

I'm fortunate for a good many things in my life: a job I enjoy, a lovable rescue dog, good friends, generous parents. And I'm very lucky to have two great neighbors. Art and Gwen, whose home is adjacent to my own, looked after my house while I was gallivanting around California, watering plants and keeping an eye on things (they promised to call the police if they noticed anyone walking away with the television). This isn't extraordinary. They did, however, install a new back porch light for me while I was gone. A porch light they wouldn't allow me to pay them for because I look after their place a lot (they both travel frequently for work).

How to reimburse them? I went with tomato pie. This week's CSA box included lots of red, ripe tomatoes, perfect for the starring role in a dish. I love tomato pie, something I discovered just a few years ago, despite my Southern upbringing. My mother and I went to the charming Mozelle's for lunch when I was home for a visit, and I decided to try a slice. It was amazing. Sweet and luscious, the tomatoes were baked with onion, mayonnaise and cheddar cheese (that's right, mayo and cheddar — trust me, it's fabulous), encased between two flaky layers of pastry.

Back at home, I began experimenting with the ingredients, using a recipe from an old junior league cookbook as the jumping off point. I don't have the cookbook (it belongs to my mother, Joy), but I think the recipe called for raw onions and didn't include garlic. I love caramelized onions and put garlic in just about everything, so I used them in my version, along with fresh basil. I peel the tomatoes, as the skin can be off putting, but I've seen recipes that skip this step.

Homemade crust is essential for an off-the-charts-good pie, but if you have a high-quality store bought pie dough and you're pressed for time, feel free to use it here. I don't make a double-crust pie like they do at Mozelle's simply because I don't need to consume that much pastry (it is mighty good, though). I think the result — a top layer of melted cheese — is smashing, but if you're feeling decadent, add the second pastry layer and bake until golden brown. A simple green salad is the perfect accompaniment.

I used a 10-inch French tart pan (tin, with a removable bottom), but a 9-inch glass pie pan would be fine. 

Southern Tomato Pie
Serves 8

1 10-inch savory pie crust, pre-baked (recipe follows)
3 tomatoes, peeled, cored and diced
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise (use Duke's brand if available in your area)
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
a few pinches of sugar, if necessary

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

To peel tomatoes, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Make a small x on the bottom of each tomato with a paring knife. Drop them into boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and plunge into an ice water bath to stop the cooking. The skins will slip off easily. Core the tomatoes, and cut them in half across the middle (if they were globes, this would be the equator - don't cut through the stem). Use your fingers to remove the seeds, then chop into 1/2-inch dice. Place in a colander and allow to drain while you caramelize the onions.

Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the sliced onions. Cook over medium-low heat for 20-30 minutes, until golden brown. Add the minced garlic in the last 5-10 minutes of cooking and season with kosher salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Stir occasionally to ensure even cooking.

Gently squeeze the chopped tomatoes to remove excess liquid (you don't want the bottom of your pie to be soggy). Season the tomatoes with salt and freshly ground black pepper, adding a few pinches of sugar if necessary.  Combine the mayonnaise and grated cheddar cheese in a small bowl and mix to combine.

Cover the bottom of the pre-baked pie shell with tomatoes. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of basil, then cover with a layer of caramelized onions. Add the remaining basil, then spread the top evenly with the mayonnaise and grated cheese. Place on a baking sheet and cook for 35-45 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Pie dough
Makes enough for one double crust pie or two 9 or 10-inch single crust pies

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks cold butter, cubed
1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water

Place the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the cold, cubed butter and pulse a few times, until the butter has broken down into very small pieces and the mixture resembles a coarse cornmeal.

Slowly add the cold water through the feed tube with the machine running. Do not over-process — the dough should just come together, and may still be a little crumbly. Turn the dough onto a work surface and press together, adding water if necessary. Divide into 2 pieces, form into discs, wrap with plastic wrap, and let rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour. The dough may be frozen at this point for up to one month.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

After the dough has rested at least one hour, roll one portion into a large circle, using your pie tin as a guide — the circle must be large enough for the dough to cover both the bottom and sides of the pan. Press the dough gently into the pan, crimp the edges, and place in the freezer for 20 minutes before baking. To blind bake, cover the dough with a piece of parchment paper and fill it with pie weights (I use rice). Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the weights and bake for another 10 minutes, pricking the bottom with a fork. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.


Greetings from California

Chilly, foggy San Francisco days did nothing to dampen my appetite last week. I noshed on appetizers at RN74, sampled Chinese fare in the neon-green dining room at Yuet Lee, downed raw oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company, and consumed fabulous spring rolls at Slanted Door, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant with stunning bay views. I'm against taking pictures in restaurants with my SLR (I'm there to enjoy the food, not let it sit and congeal, slowly cooling to room temperature while I pretend to be a professional photographer), so I bring you a few images of other enjoyable city experiences. Above, a dahlia in Golden Gate Park. Below, a few shots of Chinatown.

Now I'm off for another tasty day in wine country, where the clouds burn off each morning to reveal beautiful blue skies and ideal temperatures.  I loved Bouchon's incredible French fare and enjoyed a marvelous meal at Bottega with my friend and former coworker, Angela, now chef at Restaurant ZuZu in downtown Napa (also on my To Visit list). 

It will soon be time to go — I'm running out of money and clean clothes.


Guest post: When tacky is good

My friend Kitty is a great cook and wonderful writer. When she asked about guest blogging, I (was very surprised and) jumped at the opportunity.

I'm on vacation, uploading this piece from beautiful Northern California, and hope to write again in about a week. With any luck, I'll have fun vacation photos and stories to share. So far, so good. Better than good, actually — this holiday is close to perfect.

Until I'm home and have time to write, you should make you some cornbread.

- Lynn

When Tacky is Good
by Kitty

Like many, my childhood memories are often associated with food.  Oh, sure, there was the time that the dog and a water moccasin had a falling out (snake won, as did the vet who billed us for the puppy paw repair), the day my father and brother unveiled the swing they had built for me, and dancing in the sprinklers on a hot day.  But those pale in comparison to the rich and vivid culinary memories.

My grandmother was a great cook.  Wait — let me amend that, she was a great Southern cook.  She kept a vat of hardened bacon grease in her Frigidaire, had coconut and caramel layer cakes at the ready 24/7, and wielded some hefty power from her 5’ frame when there was a stove and a cast iron pan involved.  And it is from that cast iron pan that she made her greatest creation — good, plain, simple cornbread.

This is not the cornbread you find at Whole Foods.  It is not sweet, fluffy or cake-like.  This is not the cornbread you find in novelty bread baskets at upscale retro-Southern restaurants.  This is a very plain concoction that most resembles corn tack — toothsome, crunchy and meant to be consumed that day.

For this particular recipe, the quality of the ingredients is equal in importance to the required cookware.  I usually accompany this wonderful treat with another Southern staple — the vegetable plate.  Fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra, cucumber and onion salad and, these days, pickled beets.

Miss Effie’s Cornbread
Required cookware:  a well-seasoned cast iron skillet

1 1/2 cups high quality, stone-ground corn meal (I’ve been using Pollard)
1 1/2 cups water
canola oil

  1. Pour canola oil  into the cast iron skillet to coat, about 2 tablespoons.
  2. Place skillet in oven, and preheat oven and skillet to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  3. While oven is heating, combine water, salt and cornmeal.  You’re going for a runny consistency.  Remember when you made moats around sand castles?  That’s what you’re going for. 
  4. After 15 minutes, remove pan from the oven, and pour in the cornmeal batter. The oil in the pan will spatter a bit, and begin to cover the top of the batter  — that's good. The mixture should only be about 1/2 inch thick in the pan.
  5. Cook at 475 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes, until you see cracks in the surface.
  6. Remove from oven,  turn out onto a cutting board, and serve with plenty of butter (or to be all nouvelle Southern, honey butter!)


The countdown begins, and a vegetable gratin

This past weekend was filled with good stuff. I celebrated my father's 68th birthday Saturday, was inundated with hugs and kisses from my handsome 3- and 4-year-old nephews, and I went shopping for my upcoming trip to Northern California, because who wants to look schlubby on vacation?

The first Sunday morning surprise: a steady rain greeted me when I got up to walk the dog, and temperatures hovered around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (if only early in the day). Such a relief! It was an unusual way to usher in August, typically the hottest month of the year, but a very welcome one.

My second Sunday morning treat: an email from my travel buddy noting that we would be in California in less than 72 hours. Let the countdown begin!

I spent the day running errands and straightening up. I insist on leaving my house clean and neat before going out of town — I can't handle returning to a disorderly mess. That philosophy trickles down to the kitchen and meal planning. I must use up any and all perishable items before departure.

When dinner rolled around, I scoured the fridge and pantry. Time to use the CSA red creamers (and a few baby yellow potatoes), the storage onions in the bin, the tub of feta from Costco that seemed like such a great deal weeks ago. No grocery store runs allowed.

These ingredients were perfect for a gratin, a delicious layering of vegetables I accented with garlic, a few kalamata olives, and topped with homemade breadcrumbs. Almost as good the tasty gratin — peering into a nearly empty refrigerator at night's end.

Gratins are typically served as side dishes, but I let this play the starring role Sunday night, accompanied by a simple green salad. 

Tomato, Onion and Potato Gratin
Serves 8 as a side dish

1 1/2 pounds red creamer potatoes, thinly sliced
2 onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/3 cup kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
2 slices sourdough bread
handful of fresh basil leaves
handful of fresh parsley leaves
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Lightly oil or butter a 6-cup gratin dish, and rub the bottom and sides of the dish with the cut end(s) of a halved garlic clove.

Place a skillet over a burner set to medium-low heat, glaze it with olive oil, and add the onion. Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until caramelized. Add 3 finely chopped garlic cloves to the onion in the last 5 minutes of cooking.

The potatoes must be very thinly sliced, a little shy of 1/4-inch thick.  Steam them until tender, about 5-8 minutes, and set aside.

Put the bread slices in a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped. Add a few teaspoons of minced garlic and freshly chopped basil and parsley, and set aside.

To build the gratin, place a layer of steamed potatoes slices on the bottom of the greased gratin dish. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and kosher salt, then layer with half of the caramelized onion-garlic mixture. Top with a second potato layer, season, add the rest of the cooked onions, then top with sliced tomatoes. Tuck a few basil leaves into the crevices, sprinkle with more salt and pepper, then top with chopped olives, freshly crumbed feta cheese, and light, fluffy homemade breadcrumbs.

If you have only canned breadcrumbs 1) throw them away and 2) skip this step. I would happily forgo the crunch of fresh breadcrumbs rather than subject myself to the processed version.

Place the gratin dish onto a baking sheet to catch any spills, and bake for 45-60 minutes. The topping will be golden brown and the interior heated through when done. Garnish with freshly chopped herbs before serving.