Cook it up right

There’s something I have to get off my chest, today. I hope you’ll bear with me. It’s small, and round, and edible, of course. It’s my favorite grain that’s not a grain at all. Yes, I’m talking about quinoa.

I’m not usually one to make demands about what one must or mustn’t do in the kitchen. At least not in your kitchen. Food is personal, and you’ve got to do with it what you want. You’re the decider! So go ahead and eat your steak as bloody or as burnt as you please. Douse it in ketchup, or mayo, or grape jelly, for all I care. Cook and let cook! Eat and let eat! Except for when it comes to quinoa. This, for the simple reason that I have been enjoying the heck out of quinoa lately, and I think you will, too, if you cook it up right.

For a long time, I made quinoa much like I make rice. (I also have some things to say about the way we’re all taught to cook rice, by the way, but that’s a story for another day.) Anyway, you know how it goes: some measure of quinoa and about twice as much water, simmered down until it has either evaporated or absorbed. There’s a reason I used to do it this way. The box told me to. And so did any number of reputable print and on-line sources. It seemed obvious enough, and depending on how I timed the cooking and calibrated the boil (what does a true “simmer” look like, anyway?), the result was more or less fine. But somewhere along the way, after at least half a dozen times of more-or-less-fine, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the stuff. The flavor was borderline nice, I suppose. There was something faintly nutty there, but it was muted, bogged down. And the texture. Was this how it was supposed to be? Mildly soggy at best, mushy at worst? I nearly typed the word “swampy” in that last sentence, which leads me to wonder just how “fine” my early days of quinoa really were.

Then, in the late summer of 2006, the August issue of Gourmet turned up in my mailbox with a recipe for quinoa with corn, scallions, and mint. I could stop right there, or maybe with the fact that the recipe also includes fresh lemon zest and juice, and a touch of honey, and you’d already know that this recipe had a lot going for it. But what really got me was the cooking method. You start the quinoa on the boil, as I’d come to expect, but carry on only until it’s just coming around to tender. Then, you drain it, and set it in a sieve over an inch of simmering water to steam the rest of the way through to done. The technique is brilliant, and so is the quinoa that comes out in the end. It’s soft without the sog, breaks between the teeth with the lightest pop, and when you fluff it with a fork, you actually fluff it with a fork. Fluff it, not smoosh it. Because the individual seeds remain individual seeds, clump-free, lump-free, and every bit as delicious as all the quinoa you’ve ever eaten has let on it might be, given the proper circumstances.

So there you go. Thanks. I feel much better now.

Lemon-Scented Quinoa with Scallions and Mint
Adapted from Gourmet

The original recipe includes four ears worth of fresh corn kernels, boiled on the cob for five minutes, then removed, or simply raw. It’s wonderful that way in the summer. This time of year, I make it without the corn, and it’s still excellent. Make the dressing with butter or, for a something different, olive oil. I like it both ways.

1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
½ stick (¼ c.) unsalted butter, or ¼ c. olive oil
1 Tbsp. mild honey
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 c. (about 10 oz.) quinoa
4 scallions, thinly sliced
½ c. chopped fresh mint

Rinse the quinoa in three changes of cold water to remove any bitter coating. Bring a 4- to 5- quart pot of salted water to a boil, add the quinoa, and cook for about 7-8 minutes, until just slightly tender. (Think al dente pasta.)

Drain the quinoa in a sieve, then set the sieve over an inch of simmering water in the same pot. (Make sure that the water doesn't touch the bottom of the sieve.) Cover the quinoa with a folded kitchen towel and cover the whole thing with a lid. Steam until the quinoa is tender, fluffy, and dry, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, still covered, for another 3-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the dressing: Whisk together the lemon zest and juice, butter or oil, honey, salt, and pepper. Gently fold the quinoa into the dressing with a rubber spatula, then fold in the scallions and mint. Taste, and add more salt and pepper, if you'd like. Serve at any temperature.

Makes enough for eight.


A flying leap

The newspaper told me to make corn bread yesterday. Yes, again. In my defense, this corn bread is really its own thing, so one might argue that it’s not “again” at all. Also in my defense, it’s hard to say no to a newspaper, especially when that newspaper is The New York Times, and especially, especially when it’s speaking in the voice of Sam Sifton. There’s talk of sopping, and stuffing and, (I love this part) “powerful croutons.” Then, the following statement: “There is really no reason not to make corn bread right away.” Including, I assumed, the alarming rate of corn bread production and consumption already underway in my kitchen. “No reason” means no reason, after all. So I got up, oiled a cast-iron skillet, and put it in the oven to warm.

And here we are, another corn bread before us. The funny part isn’t actually the two-corn-breads-in-as-many-posts thing. I mean, corn bread is good. Bring on the corn bread, right? It’s that the two corn breads in as many posts both hail from my very own Cambridge, Massachusetts: a yeasted sandwich-style loaf from Hi-Rise Bread Company and, today, a skillet quick-bread from a restaurant called the East Coast Grill. Now that, 180 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, is unexpected.

I’ve got a few things I’d like to say about today’s corn bread, but having just scrolled through the comments posted beneath the article on the New York Times site, I continue with trepidation. (Do not, I repeat, DO NOT mess with people’s corn bread.) Hopefully, with a loaf of corny sandwich bread as our starting point, it’s safe to say that today’s version is at least closer to what many of us imagine when we hear the words, “corn bread.” (Or the word, “cornbread,” depending on whom you ask.) It’s baked in a skillet, for one thing, and it’s leavened with baking powder, not yeast. Plus, it just plain looks like corn bread. It smells like corn bread, too, as it bakes and browns and crisps up around the edges, which is why I was surprised to discover that it didn’t quite taste like corn bread. At least not the corn bread I had in mind. Don’t get me wrong. Some people will tell you that with the presence of eggs, flour, yellow cornmeal, and sugar, this is no corn bread, but an abomination. I am not one of those people. I am a person, though, who once upon a time, circa 1989 in Cleveland, Ohio, slid squares of corn bread from the school lunch line onto my tray, and got something dense and crumbly, not unappealingly dry, and with a one-note, corn-only flavor. That I measure my corn bread by the yardstick of my grade school cafeteria should tell you that I have not a lick of authority in the corn bread department. All I’m trying to say is that I guess I was expecting something like that. And yet, despite what I thought today’s corn bread might be, and what it actually is, my message to you is that I like it very much.

This corn bread, as you can plainly see, is many energetic strides away from the upright loaf of Hi-Rise Bread Company fame. But as it approaches (what I consider to be) the land of classic corn bread, it takes a flying leap into full-blown cake territory. Here, like in the Hi-Rise recipe, the single cup of cornmeal never truly grabs you, mingling as it does with twice that amount of white flour. Even with the added corn kernels, what we have here is not the corniest of corn breads. Sifton does, by the way, suggest playing with the balance of corn meal and white flour to suit your taste, and I plan on changing things up the next time around, just to see what happens. Still, there’s no denying that cake territory is a lovely, lovely place. Things are sweet there, and if you’re lucky, light and moist, and we could all do worse than a corn bread that is all of these things.

The only trick is figuring out just what to do with this cake-like bread. First, there is the matter of temperature. I have always operated under the general rule that warm-from-the-oven bread, left to cool just long enough to finish pulling itself together, is always preferable to room temperature bread. Cakes, though, are best fully cooled. Breads, warm. Cakes, cool. Then along comes this cake-like bread... See the problem, here? The beauty of a skillet-baked corn bread is that you can bring it in the skillet from oven to table, and cut into it while it is still warm. That's what we did with this skillet-baked corn bread, only to discover that still warm, it's actually kind of weird. (A case of, ahem, cast iron-y, perhaps??) (Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.) It tastes, for lack of a better word, rare. As in, not quite cooked. This, despite it being, by every measure, baked through. The flavor and feel are what I would imagine classic birthday cake might be if you were to eat it straight from the oven. Too sweet, very white, in need of salt, and a little, I don’t know… batter-y.

It was the strangest thing. So strange that I remained on the fence for a while about whether I would share the recipe with you at all. Then, a few hours later, when the bread was cool, I tried it again, and found that it had ripened into serious deliciousness. The white flour did its job, adding stature and spring, but had stepped back a bit behind the corn. What was once too sweet was now perfectly in balance, and upping the salt no longer felt necessary. It just needed some time to settle, I guess. As for how I’ve been eating it: with soft, salted butter, with raspberry jam, and, of course, with the killer hot pepper honey that the newspaper also, in its supreme and clear-eyed bossiness, insisted I make.

So. Another corn bread for you, friends. And now that I’m officially collecting them, it seems, I think I’d like to find one more. Something corn meal-heavy so that the corn really sings. Do you have a favorite recipe you’d be willing to share? I hope so. I’d really love to know.

East Coast Grill Corn Bread
(and Honey with Red Pepper flakes)
Adapted from The New York Times Magazine, where Sam Sifton adapted it from the East Coast Grill

If you managed to read all the way down to the end of this post, you already know that I advocate for the complete cooling of this bread before eating. Leave it uncovered in the skillet so that you don’t lose the crunchy bits on top and around the edges. One other quick note: I like my corn bread gritty, so I use medium-grind cornmeal.

2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. stone-ground yellow cornmeal, medium grind
¾ c. white sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
2 large eggs
1½ c. whole milk
1½ Tbsp. vegetable oil
¼ c. melted butter
2 c. fresh or frozen corn kernels

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and put it in the oven to heat up.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and oil. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, add the melted butter and the corn, and stir until just mixed.

Take the hot cast-iron pan from the oven and pour in the batter. Use a spatula to even it out, if necessary. Put the pan back into the oven and bake for approximately 1 hour (start checking at 50 minutes), until the bread is browned on top and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Serves 6-8.


Honey with Red Pepper Flakes

Spoon some honey, however much you’d like, into a bowl. Sprinkle with red-pepper flakes, to taste. Wonder why you’ve never thought of this before.