Tuesday, June 18, 2013

DinnerLove: Meatless Meal!

I've been eating a lot of meat lately.

I blame it on the weather. Although it's mid-June, the days have been cool, cloudy and rainy. I'm certainly not complaining; that sort of summer weather is one reason I moved to upstate NY. This kind of proper Irish weather begs for steamy bowls of chili, stew and dumplings.

I needed a change. At least temporarily. Grabbing my reusable shopping bags, I headed to the market.

I perused the grocery store shelves looking for the bargains. Back in culinary school, we had tests called "mystery basket", where we would be given a box of cobbled together ingredients and be expected to create a delicious meal from them- using additional ingredients from a typically stocked pantry.

As I pushed my cart down the isle, scanning the shelves for the bright yellow tags that shouted a drop in price, I mentally thumbed through my recipes and tricks. The pickings were a little slim on this day. I managed to score on some chicken, pasta, pomegranates and a bag of yellow eye beans. The chicken and pasta didn't inspire me, so I stashed them away when I unpacked my shopping bags later that morning. Pomegranates are wonderful in all kinds of ways; delicious as well as heart-healthy and cancer-fighting. So I removed the seeds from the fruit and stowed them in a zip-lock bag for future convenient access. Then I turned to the bag of beans, still slouched against the sugar bowl where it had come to rest when it fell out of my canvas grocery bag.

Yellow eye beans. Hhhmm. I'd never run across them before. They were sleek and sizable. Bigger than a navy bean, but smaller than a kidney bean, they were creamy white with a saddle of dark tan stretched across the top. Sort of the pinto pony of the bean world.

Well, they were new to me, but they were beans- and I certainly knew what to do with beans. A satisfactory meal idea solidified in my mind...an old standby: beans and cornbread. Too much meat in the previous days had left me weary of animal protein and I was ready for a meatless meal. It's long been known that beans and rice combine to make a meat-free complete protein, but cornbread works too. (http://www.ironaddicts.com/forums/showthread.php?t=3848)

I dumped the beans into a bowl and filled it with hot-from-the-tap water. I set the bowl aside. Dried beans really need 24 peaceful hours to rehydrate. Not great for those who crave instant gratification, but still quite doable.

The next morning I peered into the big stainless steel bowl to find the beans had swollen to the top of the water line. I set a big stock pot on the stove and dumped the beans into it. I added an onion, some garlic and a celery stalk, set the heat on low and covered the pot. Don't salt beans until you serve them as it tends to dull their color as well as toughen the skins. Dried beans are an all-day cook, which makes them a great food item for cool, rainy days.

The pot bubbled away cheerfully as I went about my day. Evening approached and I reached behind the stove to get my big cast iron skillet  off it's hook. I turned the oven to 400 degrees and put the empty, clean skillet inside.

Cast iron has great heat retention. Whether it's bare cast iron or cast enamel, these great cooking vessels can withstand even the most inhospitable of temperatures and conditions. They can crack or break if they are dropped sharply on a hard surface, however and do leave black skid-marks on the bottom of your white sink, but other than that, they are dependable cookware, often being passed from generation to generation. In fact,during Reconstruction times in the Old South, cooking in cast iron was one way the survivors of the Civil War were able to get some scant amount of iron into their diets.

For cornbread with a crisp, flavorful crust, cast iron is a great choice. Cornbread is a quick bread and must be mixed quickly and baked immediately. I use a basic cornbread recipe and multiply it to fill my colossal pan. There are two schools of thought in the cornbread cosmos. There are those who like sweet cornbread and some who prefer normal cornbread. In the normal cosmos, sugar does not enter the orbit of the cornbread batter. Of course, if you like to bake your cornbread in a cupcake liner and frost it with vanilla buttercream, by all means, add sugar to your cornbread recipe.

Winter'Rest Farm Cornbread
1 cup white or yellow cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 TBSP baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 stick butter melted OR 1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup milk
1 egg

Heat your oven to 400 and put cast iron inside to heat up. To the empty cast iron pan, add a couple of tablespoons of butter to melt and get hot. (If you don't have a cast iron pan, use what you have, add the batter and then bake) Combine the dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate. Set aside. In a separate bowl, combine the wet ingredients and stir together. (I use a whisk) Add your wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to just incorporate. Don't overmix. Less is more here. Remove your hot skillet from the oven and pour in the batter. (Adding the butter or oil to the pan as it heats means that the batter starts frying as soon as it hits the pan.) Move quickly and get it back into the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and firm to the touch.
The batter fries as it hits the hot oil in the pan.

I like to serve cornbread within 10 minutes of removing it from the oven. You'll need to wait at least 10 minutes or it will crumble when you try to cut it. If you wait too long, the delicious local butter you slather on it won't melt properly.

To your big wedge of cornbread, add a bowl of salted beans. When I am feeling coltish, I break off hunks of cornbread and stir them into the beans. On a really crazy day, I might add a sprinkle of shredded cheddar. Yum.

This type of dish is a super way to feed a lot of people for mere pennies. The beans cost $1.49 for a 1 pound bag, and the corn meal was .99 for a 2 pound bag. Unless you are serving a platoon of soldiers, you should have plenty of leftovers and you'll please all the vegetarians in your life!

No need to wait for rain...serve anytime and enjoy!

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