Peppered Corn Meal

Preparing the perfect polenta sounds easy enough, but around my kitchen, it takes added patience to work with the grainy flour ground from white or yellow corn.

When simmering the flour in water to transform the fine grain into the consistency of porridge, I’ve stirred up thin batches and a few lumpy variations. Lately, a pre-cooked version makes a convenient heat-and-eat substitute. The packaged polenta is firm and ready to slice, as if a pan of my wishfully smooth porridge had cooled and set.

Adding fresh ingredients to the packaged product diminishes a bit of the guilt of not preparing the basic polenta from scratch. For this stovetop take on skillet polenta, shishito peppers make up for any shortfall with the grainy foundation. They boost the flavor and complement the dense cornmeal texture. Any mild peppers will do, but if you see these beauties at the farmers’ market, scoop up a few dozen. (I purchased mine from a farmer lady who guaranteed their great taste.)Minimized peppered polenta

A 24-ounce tube of the starchy ground corn costs little (under $3 at some local markets) and can be sliced, grilled, baked, fried or crumbled and mixed into a skillet. This easy working starch offers a change from the trite potatoes-rice-pasta routine. Polenta lovers in Italy have known for generations that the finely ground corn serves as a hearty filler, eaten alone as a creamy dish or enhanced with everything from tomatoes to cheese.

Minimized blistered shishito peppersShishito peppers blistered on high heat add a taste of sweet char without overpowering the cornmeal base. A cousin to Spanish Padrón peppers, Japanese shishitos taste sweet with a mild heat unit on the pepper measurement scale, nowhere near the fire of peppers like the habanero or serrano. Resisting the temptation to devour the slender green shishito pods may pose the primary challenge in reserving the blistered peppers for the medley. Combine sundried tomatoes or fresh mushrooms with shishitos and polenta to further satiate hungry dining partners. If eggs agree with you and your guests, make room for their protein-rich addition. Once ingredients warm through, crack eggs into the skillet and let them cook for a few minutes. Our family prefers cooking the egg to a soft-boiled consistency. With eggs, peppers and mushrooms mixed in, the polenta almost carries enough weight to stand alone as the meal. Finish the dish with a layer of grated Parmesan or your favorite cheese. To get the most from these grains, eat peppered polenta while it’s still hot.

Peppered Polenta

12 shishito peppers

1 small shallot, diced

1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced

extra virgin olive oil

24 ounces pre-cooked polenta, crumbled

5 eggs

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

sea salt and fresh ground pepper

  1. In dry cast-iron skillet, cook peppers over high heat until skins blister and brown. Drizzle with olive oil and season with course salt. Remove from pan. Cool and cut into small pieces. Set aside.
  2. Add shallots and mushrooms to pan and sauté in olive oil. Mix in crumbled polenta and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook 10 minutes on high heat, stirring. Mix in peppers. Lower heat and make 5 wells in the polenta mixture. Crack eggs into wells. Cover and cook 3 to 5 minutes. Check eggs for doneness.
  3. Finish with shredded or grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Pepper Note: For a mild peppery snack platter aside from the polenta, prepare shishito peppers following the blistering directions but leave peppers whole with stems intact. Pass the platter and hope that it comes back with a taste for the host.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

First published at The Highlands Current

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Pisco and pastries south of the world

Some people naturally throw parties where the food, company and spirits are all good.

Over the last two years during a stay in the Hudson Valley, friends from Chile repeatedly shared their party flair.

It started at Andrea and Rodrigo’s baby shower, where guests sampled a beverage featuring pisco, colorless brandy with an alcohol content that can range above 40 percent. The hosts served piscola, a chilled blend of cola and pisco (primarily produced in regions of Chile and Peru), as the shower’s signature cocktail. One tall slender piscola tasted just right (had I not been driving home later, two may have tasted better).

When Andrea and Rodrigo marked their son’s first birthday, we toasted again with pisco. Inspired to mix South American drinks, my husband and I asked Rodrigo where he purchased pisco (Payless Wine & Liquor in Newburgh) and we started experimenting to perfect pisco sours, a full-bodied Chilean cocktail.Minimized juicing the lemons

Pisco—a luxury spirit made from several varieties of grapes and distilled to proof—anchors the pisco sour, but freshly squeezed citrus juice turns the beverage into a lemony libation.

Last month, before the couple returned to Chile with their young son and another baby on the way, Rodrigo made the splashy cocktail while Andrea taught a group of friends how to create traditional empanadas.

“In Chile,” she said, “you always can find empanadas. It’s very typical and we eat a lot of them, out for lunch, at the beach, at home. I’m no excellent cook but I do know a good empanada.”

Her variation, which she credits to her mother Maria, stands up boldly to the savory sort sold at Rincon Argentino in Cold Spring and the flavorful Mexi-Cali-inspired empanadas stuffed with everything from chipotle chicken to kale and sweet potato at Beacon’s Tito Santana Taqueria.

For an empanada like her mother’s, Andrea cooks a spicy filling of beef, onion, garlic and cumin, prepared a day ahead to let the mixture rest.

“This part, the filling, is the most important part of the empanada,” Andrea insisted. “You don’t want too much onion or we say ‘this is no good.’ You taste and taste and taste the filling as you’re cooking and stirring, adding the cumin and some salt, until you find a good flavor and that’s it.”

These empanadas, empanadas de pino, include spicy beef filling as well as raisins, black olives and hard-boiled egg. The fillers are wrapped with dough made from scratch or purchased in prepared form. For the group assembly, Andrea provided ready-made “discos” packaged by Goya.Minimized filling the empanadas

To change up your party repertoire, prep empanada ingredients and invite all to join in the pastry assembly while sampling pisco sours. Icy-cold lemon drinks without pisco can be something special even for those who prefer booze-free beverages, so you can never have too many lemons on hand. The beauty of this south-of-the-world tasting brings guests together all in good spirits.

Pisco Sours

Yield: 1 serving

3 measures pisco

1 measure freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 measure simple syrup (1:1 water and sugar. In small saucepan, bring to boil. Stir, dissolve sugar, simmer and remove from heat. Cool.)

1 egg white

bitters

ice

Shake pisco, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white with ice for 20 seconds. Strain into glass and add a swirl of bitters on top of the foam. Serve immediately.

Empanadas

Yield: 1 dozen

Dough

1 ½ cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

¾ cup butter

1 egg yolk

8 tablespoons cold water or milk

Combine flour, salt and baking powder in mixing bowl. Cut in the butter, mixing evenly. Mix in egg yolk. Gradually add liquid. Refrigerate 15 minutes. Separate dough into 12 balls. Roll into 5-inch circles.

Filling

2 tablespoons canola oil

½ yellow onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 pound ground or finely chopped beef

½ cup white wine

1 teaspoon ground cumin

salt and pepper to taste

Stuffing

2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced into 6 lengths

1 cup raisins

2 dozen black olives

1 egg, whisked (set aside)

  1. Over medium heat, cook onion, garlic and cumin in oil until softened. Add meat and wine. Cook until browned, seasoning with cumin, salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Place dough rounds on floured surface. Add 1 tablespoon of filling to center. Top with egg slices, raisins and olives. Moisten dough perimeter with water. Fold pastry in half and crimp edges. Turn ends into middle.
  3. Brush sealed empanadas with egg wash. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until golden.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

First published at The Highlands Current

 

 

 

Share a summer salad

Need a flavorful #salad to share at your table? Toss one up with chickpeas and let this salad work like a meal.Minimized chickpea salad

Day-old bread panzanella

With your best extra virgin olive oil and a loaf of day-old crusty bread, add a few juicy tomatoes and toss up panzanella. Try this amazing and simple take on the Tuscan salad in my Cook On food column. Minimized panzanella

Korean hot pepper paste kicks up sauce

Street food in South Korea gives the study of culture through cuisine an intense reception. A deep red hot pepper paste, gochujang, serves as the fiery base of Korean specialties and the essential ingredient stocked throughout Korean kitchens may surprise the most daring global diners with a lesson in heat.

Gochujang hot pepper pasteGochujang adds sweet and spicy flavor to traditional Korean recipes and as Cold Spring’s Clayton Smith explores the land and language, he’s acquiring street food vocabulary and a love for fermented hot sauce.

Clayton is finishing up his junior year at SUNY Geneseo. He’s immersed not only in academics on a study abroad semester, but sampling Korean staples as any student might—from a stream of food trucks and snack carts along bustling South Korean streets.

While receiving exchange credit for coursework at Sogang University, the communication-digital media/journalism major enjoys studying Seoul’s urban food scene.

“Korean cuisine is definitely a perk of being here,” Clayton says. “ There are a lot of great options to choose from, and I find myself eating out a lot because often times the food is quite cheap.”

Korean barbecue, where dining patrons cook meat servings on table-top grills, remains a favorite. Clayton has sampled pork barbecue and he’s experienced Korea’s culture in bulgogi, thinly sliced tender beef marinated in a sweet soy sauce. Classic foods of the country along with global street fare like Turkish kebabs keep up nourishment, but he often orders tteokbokki or ddukboki [dock-bo-kee].

Clayton describes tteokbokki as stir-fried rice cakes prepared in spicy sauce.

“It’s definitely the most popular street food here, and I really enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve heard it described as the ‘the Korean mac and cheese,’ which might be a way to describe the popularity of the dish, but it is hardly comparable. The rice cakes are in the form of thick noodles, making for a really chewy, unusual texture.”

Hearing Clayton’s description of the spicy tteokbokki, I set out to make it. I asked my friend Sung, who puts a gourmet spin on Korean home cooking, to recommend a Korean food market. She sent me to wander among aisles of fine products at Woo-Ri Mart in Northvale, N.J. Not only did I come away with suggestions from supermarket employees on preparing tteokbokki, I even picked up a prepared serving of Clayton’s #1 street food served up at Woo-Ri Mart’s food court. The portion was so generous that I split it with my husband who loves Korean cooking (he lived in Korea before we were married). With every bite, I could appreciate the heat that Clayton savors in ultra spicy meals.

“From what I’ve seen, there is not a choice of sauces. There is one sauce that the dish is cooked in and most would agree that it is very hot,” Clayton said, “although I personally enjoy it.”

I requested help in replicating the sauce from the encouraging merchants at Woo-Ri Mart who directed me to a supply of gochujang. Knowing that the customary 3 kilos would be more than enough to spice up my sauce, I settled for 1 pound of the hot pepper paste packaged in bright red tubs. As I searched for the cylindrical rice cakes, a staffer also directed me to a selection of fish cakes used in tteokbokki, and suggested dried anchovies to flavor the cooking broth for the rice cakes. I opted out of the super-sized box of tiny briny fish and substituted an anchovy-based sauce.Minimized Korean tteokbokki copy

Photo by Clayton Smith

The fishy addition helped cut the peppery pasty sauce and I served the tteokbokki with quail eggs, following Clayton’s recommendation. A cool egg calms a kick while spicy soaked rice cakes make tteokbokki a novel reprieve from typical American food snacks.

Clayton likes the hot flavor and chewy texture of the rice noodles because they’re so different from anything he’s ever eaten. Before returning to the Hudson Valley in July, he’ll take his curiosity and appetite to Thailand and Myanmar, but in the weeks ahead, he’ll practice his vocabulary ordering Korea’s best street food.

 

Tteokbokki

Serves 4

3 cups Korean rice cake sticks

3 cups water

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1/3 cup gochujang Korean hot pepper paste

½ teaspoon spicy hot pepper flakes

2 tablespoons sugar

1 pound fish cake strips

6 scallions, sliced

4 fresh quail eggs, hard-boiled

  1. In a shallow pan, heat half of the water and add rice cakes. Soak and simmer over low heat 10 minutes.
  2. In a small skillet, make a quick stock of remaining water and fish sauce. Boil and reduce to low heat. Add gochujang, hot pepper flakes and sugar. Mix well, bring to a boil and reduce to medium heat. Add drained rice cakes and fish cakes to sauce. Cook over low heat 5 minutes.
  3. Spoon mixture onto serving plate, top with scallions and serve with egg.

By Mary Ann Ebner, Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

 

Confined Confection

For the past few weeks, it feels as if I’ve been camping out in my own kitchen. To acclimate a four-legged family member to our home, we gated off and puppy-proofed that room. We may come to regret the kitchen location, but it seems to make sense for the baby who needs easy access when heading outdoors on quick notice.

Already named “Denver” before he joined us, this puppy’s routine around the kitchen finds at least one of us playing with him, brushing his chocolate-brown coat, teaching him to sit with miniature milk bones, or bumping into each other while opening the refrigerator to search for treats for the trainers.

Now that Denver’s entertaining himself for longer stretches of time, he runs loose around the corner into the butler’s pantry—a safe puppy play environment with no carpets or butler to be found.

Denver, like our older dog Cammie, loves tiny pieces of raw carrot, which make great little training rewards for warm, furry creatures. A more mature pet now, Cammie trained with carrots starting at 8 weeks old and they remain her favorite puppy perk. It’s impossible to bring an orange bunch into the house without her waiting patiently in hopes that one will fall to the floor.

Though the carrots serve as rewards, tiny dabs of butter work well as diversions. When we were training Cammie, she wanted to nip at everyone, and we learned from a devoted dog lover to curb her mouthing and nipping habit with a slather of chilled butter. Within 48 hours, she received countless praises and stopped the nipping. We’re keeping the butter to a minimum with Denver, and he nips when seeking attention or alerting us to his needs. A little sweet creamy butter even helps prevent the rest of the household from nipping at each other, too.

Minimized gooey butter cake tasteWhen a cake appears around our place, we’re suddenly all on our best behavior. Just as with puppies, where behavioral experts advise to have a toy ready at all times, it could prove beneficial to have a slice of cake ready at all times for people. If there’s a stick or two of quality butter on hand, use them to make this dense cake-based crust that holds a gooey layer of cream cheese, butter and powdered sugar.

If you can call it traditional, original gooey butter cake may be made with basic staples stocked in home kitchens. Quality butter and cake flour are worth the extra effort of rounding up, though any will do to turn out a rich gooey butter cake. In St. Louis, where locals claim to have created the confection, commercial bakeries offer the cake laced with everything from chocolate chips to key lime. The recipe shared here resembles the original.

Gooey Butter Cake

Crust

1 cup sugar

2 cups flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder1 stick unsalted butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten

Filling

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups powdered sugar

Topping

¼ cup powdered sugar

  1. Sift dry crust ingredients together. Add beaten eggs and melted butter and stir until thoroughly mixed. Press thick, sticky dough into greased 9 x 12 baking pan.
  2. Mix cream cheese with eggs, butter, vanilla and powdered sugar. Beat at medium speed 2 minutes. Pour over unbaked dough.
  3. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees until puffy and golden. Cool completely and dust with remaining powdered sugar.

 

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner, Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

First published by The Highlands Current

Share Some Luck with Spinach Pie

By Mary Ann Ebner

There’s something organic about bring-a-dish gatherings with few rules to pull people together for musings on more than food. We all know someone who cringes at the mention of a potluck. He or she may avoid edible uncertainty, but that’s part of the point. Bringing something you love can spark fresh perspectives for companions.

The starting point, at a minimum, should be a dish that can be served on a plate and eaten with basic utensils. Even without rules, it’s unlikely everyone will bring their signature dessert, but worse things can happen besides a table loaded with sweets. There’s usually a taste or two for everyone, with a range of gluten-free, vegan and carnivorous recipes.

Years ago, when I worked at a campus radio station, it was announced that the year-end party would be a potluck. The general manager and engineer were full-time employees, but the rest of us were students with limited cash flow. We spent little time or money on cooking, and when we dined out it was usually at the Stagger Inn over pitchers of beer and platters of potato skins. That was high-end nutrition compared to the microwavable sandwiches peddled from campus vending machines.

As potluck day rolled around, our lack of money and cooking experience didn’t stop us from covering a couple of desks with an assortment of contributions. At least three salads turned up, along with a fruit pie that was probably stocked from the freezer section, although its creator chose not to say.

The fruit pie was popular, but the most sampled dish was a bowl of blackberry Jell-O. It wasn’t spiked (or so we were told) or topped with whipped cream but represented the willingness to take part without making a fuss over ingredients and temperatures.

Shared meals not only spread the work around but bring communities together — the best payoff. Fresh spinach is a reliable crowd pleaser and does its work in simple or lavish recipes. This variation of spanakopita is essentially spinach pie made with phyllo sheets, which are easy to use but require quick work to prevent them from becoming brittle. If you find a few triangles left over, wrap them up. They’ll taste even better the next day.

Potluck Spinach Pie

16 servings

3 eggs
3 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 small red onion, chopped
3 to 4 bunches fresh spinach, trimmed
1 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 cup roasted sunflower kernels
20 sheets phyllo pastry, thawed
3 tablespoons butter, melted
sea salt
black pepper

Lightly beat eggs with fork in mixing bowl, stir in ricotta and Parmesan, season with salt and pepper, set aside. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Sauté onion and garlic in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add mushrooms. Cook over medium heat 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add to ricotta mixture.

Cook trimmed spinach in remaining olive oil until leaves wilt. Season with salt and pepper. Remove spinach from pan, drain and chop. Stir into ricotta mixture along with fresh parsley.

After all other ingredients are prepped, unroll phyllo sheets and cover with plastic wrap and a damp towel during assembly. Butter large baking pan and layer two sheets of phyllo dough over bottom of pan. Brush layer with butter and sprinkle with sunflower kernels. Repeat with three more layers. Spoon the spinach ricotta mixture over the top layer. Sprinkle with sunflower kernels. Cover with phyllo layer, brush with butter, sprinkle with sunflower seeds and repeat to use remainder of sheets. Brush top layer with butter. Using a serrated knife, cut into squares, then into triangles. Bake until golden, about 40 minutes.

First published at The Highlands Current

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm, text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner