Posts Tagged ‘staple crops’

Kitchen Staples: Cornbread with more corn

Like any Southerner and lots of other people, I’m an ardent fan of cornbread. I’ve probably tested dozens of cornbread recipes in my life, but I keep coming back to my favorite one, which uses about half cornmeal and half white flour. Since reading The Resilient Gardener, I’m making some moves toward utilizing more staples that I could eventually produce for myself. I don’t grow field corn currently, but I might in the future, and besides, I reason that using a higher percentage of corn might give a purer corn flavor. Certainly, the less white flour we eat the better, and the cornmeal that I buy is whole-grain. I would also add that if there’s one thing we do really well in the US it’s grow corn, so growing better types and using them in better ways is not a bad idea on a national as well as personal level.
Right now I’m experimenting with lots of different cornmeals, and they offer a range of flavors, colors, and antioxidants, but my husband loves the cheerful sunny color of yellow cornbread, so that’s what I chose for my first experiment in more-corn cornbread. I use a fine meal ground from flour corn, and this type of cornmeal definitely tastes better with some sugar in the recipe, but leave it out if you insist.
I must say that I really liked the flavor and texture and it rose nicely. I was afraid that I might get a corn-brick, but the texture was only slightly more dense than my usual recipe. Try it. My next cornbread recipe will be all-corn, and I’ll keep you posted on how it comes out.

Mostly-corn Cornbread

3 cups fine yellow cornmeal- whole-grain meal ground fairly recently is important to the flavor.
1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder (our altitude is about 5000 feet. Down lower, you might need twice this much leavening)
4 tablespoons sugar (see below)
2 1/2 cups buttermilk
4 eggs
3 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and put a 12″ cast-iron skillet in to heat. You could also use another type of pan if it’s heavy and will hold heat. Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl. In another bowl beat the eggs enough to blend them and stir in the buttermilk. When the oven reaches temp, take out the skillet and throw in the butter cut in pats. It will melt quickly and proceed to burn if you don’t have everything else standing ready. Stir the wet ingredients rapidly into the dry ingredients. Don’t worry that some smallish lumps remain. Pour the batter immediately into the skillet and put it back in the oven. Bake until done, testing with a cake tester or knife blade to be sure the middle is finished. Remove from the oven, and have a rack ready. Invert the pan and the bread will fall out onto your waiting oven-gloved hand. Now invert the bread again onto the rack, so it ends up right side up. Now it can cool a little without the bottom crust, which you took pains to make crisp, getting soggy. Eat in bliss, with butter and good raw honey.
Regarding the sugar, my favorite with corn is a specialty sugar called Heavenly Sugar. I get it at my local Co-op. It’s a whole-cane juice product like sucanet but without the strong flavor, and it perfectly accentuates the flavor of good cornmeal.
The Resilient Gardener is a book that I can’t seem to shut up about. Anybody interested in the issue of personal food security should read it. Here in the Southwest, where corn and squash are traditional crops well-suited to our climate, it’s especially relevant. I am continually impressed with the asides that suddenly make sense of something I’ve puzzled over. For instance, I’ve often wondered why some cornbread tastes bad to me with sugar in it, and some tastes bad without it. Ms. Deppe points out that flour corns taste better with some sugar, and flint corns taste better without it. Simple, really, as long as you have real knowledge of your ingredients.

Addendum: I’m trying this recipe with a lot of different cornmeals, because it lets the flavor of the corn be foremost and it’s surprising what flavor differences there are. Below is the same recipe made with fresh blue cornmeal. The good part is that it’s very flavorful, with a deep earthy taste, and packed with fiber and antioxidants. The bad part is, well, it’s, uh, blue. ¬†You will have to decide for yourself whether that bothers you. I’ll be interested to see how red and purple cornbread turn out..

Kitchen Staples: Squash, and further notes on squash varieties

Since reading Carol Deppe’s book The Resilient Gardener, I’ve been thinking more about growing things that are staples rather than side dishes. This does not require that I change what I grow. I need to think in terms of putting my vegetables at the center of the plate rather than letting the “side dish” mentality sneak in. Winter squash is a filling, substantial staple and can easily be the centerpiece of a meal.
In my opinion, roasting is by far the best way to bring out the flavor of squash. It keeps wonderfully in the refrigerator for a few days once roasted, and can also be mashed, packed tightly into containers, and frozen for later use. Once properly roasted, it can be made into ravioli or lasagna fillings, form the basis of hearty soups, or just be reheated later to eat out of the shell, so I roast plenty at a time. If roasting smaller squash, I cook several, so that the oven heat is efficiently utilized, or I put them on the bottom shelf of the oven when roasting something else. I love to put maple syrup or agave nectar, a pat of butter, and a pinch of salt in the cavity if I will be eating the squash straight, but if I might use it for something else like lasagna or ravioli or one of the impromptu dishes below, I just rub the cut surfaces with olive oil and salt before roasting. In the picture above, a roasted Kukuza half dominates the plate, with a few grilled mushrooms brushed with oil and soy for a meaty touch and a slice of grilled bread with olive oil and garlic. THis is a great substantial meal to share with vegetarians and vegans, or with nearly anyone.

Here I cut a roasted squash half into thick slices, brushed lightly with soy sauce, chili oil, and roasted sesame oil, and broiled for a minute or two to accompany Asian flavors.

Here chunks of leftover roasted squash join a few chunks of leftover roasted salmon under a cheerfully colored Korean sauce. To make the sauce, chop up 2 cloves of garlic and a 1″ cube of peeled ginger. Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a small wok, and when the oil is hot throw in the chopped garlic and chile. As soon as the ginger fragrance comes up, about a minute, put in a tablespoon of gochujang and stir around madly for half a minute, then add half a cup of stock and 2-3 tablespoons of soy sauce. As soon as it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and add a teaspoon of dark sesame oil. Have ready a teaspoon of arrowroot dissolved in a tablespoon of water, and stir in. Let the sauce thicken briefly and serve over a bowl of rice topped with hot chunks of salmon and squash.
If you are going to think of squash as one of your winter staples, you need to find a squash that you can grow well and that you really enjoy eating. A few posts ago, I wrote about the immense harvest of squash that I grew this year because I planted only Cucurbita moschata varieties, which love hot weather and are resistant to squash borers. C. moschata types need a hot summer to do well, and we can certainly provide that here (they are less esteemed in cooler parts of the country). All squash need curing before you eat them in order to taste their best. Needs vary among varieties. In general, I let all squash ripen on the vine and don’t pick it until a frost is expected. Then I set it on shelves to cure. It will cure faster in warmer ambient temperatures but will hold longer in cool places, so I keep some in the house, and some in my cool but nonfreezing garage to eat later. I give the smaller squashes three weeks to cure, and the bigger ones 8 weeks before I sample the first specimen.
Even with the best treatment, squashes vary immensely in quality in flavor. My favorite C. moschata so far is a big turban-shaped beauty called Chiriman. It has moist but not watery flesh, no strings, and a lovely sweet-earthy flavor. The much smaller Kikuza is also delicious, and its small size may be preferable for some. Both are rather shy yielders, and Kikuza has rather thin flesh. Sucrine du berry yielded prolifically, and the flesh is very thick and is a dark and splendid orange-red, but the flavor is poor and the flesh is both stringy and watery, so most of the bounty is going to the chickens. I wrote to the seed company about my experience with it, and they sent back an excerpt from a gardening book explaining that winter squash needs to be vine-ripened and then cured for best flavor. Well, duh. Some squash just isn’t much good no matter how you raise it. If I ever get into hybridizing, though, I’m going to try some crosses of the prolific and bullet-proof Sucrine du berry with better-tasting C. moschatas. I still have splendid 20-lb specimens of Musque de Provence sitting around curing, but I won’t broach those until Christmas, so I’ll report on the flavor and texture after the holidays.
If you save your own seed, remember that squash of the same species interbreed wildly, so consult Ms. Deppe’s book or a good book on seed-saving to learn how to ensure squash that is true to type. It isn’t as easy as just “saving the best one for seed.”

Books Worth Reading: The Resilient Gardener

There are a lot of gardening books out there, and a lot of books on urban/suburban homesteading and on self-sufficiency. Many of them draw heavily from one another or from older books rather than from actual experience, but every now and then I come across a gardening book that I’m eager to share with others. Carol Deppe’s new book, The Resilient Gardener, is clearly based on years (decades?) of personal hands-on experience and is a must-read for anyone interested in the issue of personal food security. It is not a general gardening how-to book. Ms. Deppe discusses the best ways to improve your own food security by producing your own staple crops, and what makes a staple suitable for home food production with no unusual harvesting, threshing, or milling equipment. This isn’t one of the obnoxious-survivalist manifestos about how to be a country and a law unto yourself. It’s a sensible discussion of how ordinary people can direct their efforts to make themselves better equipped to endure the hiccups that life throws at us, whether environmental or health-related. As I read it, I found myself thinking about the spreading problems in my native Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Nearby cities like Baton Rouge weren’t hard hit by the storm. But Baton Rouge would nearly double in size in a week as evacuees poured in, grocery stores there would be nearly emptied of staple foods and anything fresh, streets would be filled with excess traffic and often impassable, and water and sewer systems would be strained. People with prudent habits were better equipped to help themselves and others through a difficult time.
No book about someone else’s needs and choices will ever be completely applicable to your own situation. Ms. Deppe includes a section on her own nutritional needs and decisions that can best be considered idiosyncratic. But then, as a doctor I believe that everyone’s needs are to a degree idiosyncratic, i.e. unique to themselves. Some basics apply to nearly everyone, but there’s a lot of individual variation. Her choices may have no applicability to you or me. They are, however, an encouragement to think carefully about our own needs and start doing more of what works for us.
I have no desire to be completely food-independent, even if such a thing were possible. But I do get great pleasure from contemplating the winter squash, potatoes, and sweet potatoes that came out of my own soil and will help feed me through the winter, and on winter evenings by the stove I’ll be studying Ms. Deppe’s ideas and planning how to be a more prudent member of my community next year.