Saturday, November 19, 2011

Breaking news: Yankee girl makes cornbread dressing

Even though I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, I was raised pure Yankee.  I knew not one thing about my Southern roots until I moved to Maryland during grad school and discovered biscuits and gravy.  I'm not talkin' about the kind of tough, hard biscuits covered in white, glutinous gravy the consistency of wallpaper paste, I'm talkin' about tender, steaming hot, buttery biscuits smothered in the most delectable of all the food groups: redeye or sawmill gravy.  You can have cream gravy with sausage if you wish, but I prefer the kind of gravy made from salt-cured country ham.  And a good-sized slice of ham too.

Those of you who know, know that you can make an entire meal of biscuits and gravy.  Hunger has been quelled, wars have been won, hearts have been smitten and the South has been defined by a simple meal of biscuits and gravy.  And then there are the grits.  Now, I'm not so much a fan of corn as I am a fan of grits.  Put some smoked cheddar or gouda in them, lay a few dry-barbecued shrimp--or better yet--a thick piece of seared pork belly--on top of a steaming bowl of them, and I am experiencing a Nirvana that not even your first speedball could deliver.

And then there are certain of us foodies that prefer to think of their grits as polenta.  I'm all over that.  Pass the asiago, please.  If you've got any osso bucco or a rich, rustic ragu to accompany my polenta, that would be even better.  Long story short, any kind of dried, ground corn made into something as comforting and satisfying as grits or polenta is the kind of corn I want to be eating at least three times a day.  And while we're on the subject of corn, I feel the urge to digress and to mention of one of my favorite Cajun dishes, maque choux, which is pretty much the best whole-kernel corn off the cob I've ever eaten.  This is a good place to mention Evangeline Cafe, where I ate with my brother earlier this week.  He had a plate of grilled catfish smothered in a creamy crawfish macque choux gravy that was out of this world.  I had other delectable things, such as the Crawfish Pistolette and the Oysters Contraband...and I'm going back just as soon as I can.

So try as I might to deny my Southern roots, they are definitely there.  My magician of a hairdresser usually very artfully disguises other root-related matters, but I'm finding that I can't suppress my craving for corn, usually in the form of coarsely-ground meal.  And furthermore, being a die-hard white-bread-herb-dressing- with-my-Thanksgiving-turkey sort of girl for over 50 years, I totally surprised myself when I made what I thought was some of the best cornbread dressing I have ever put in my mouth.  I wanted a dressing with some of the same elements of my favorite dressing: herbs, aromatic vegetables and buttery moist goodness, but I wanted something more toothsome than my beloved white bread herb dressing recipe from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook.

Typically, I pass up cornbread dressing for one or more of the following reasons: it's too sweet; it's too dry; it has too much other stuff in it that just doesn't belong there--like oysters.  I LOVE OYSTERS, but not when they're all grey and shriveled, buried as a nasty surprise in that pan of dressing.  I'm sorry to mention it, but my impulse control is totally depleted for today: oysters buried in dressing remind me in some dark, twisted way of kitty litter.  I'll stop right there.

So maybe you'll look this recipe over, turn up your nose and say, "This is nothing special."  That's OK.  But maybe you'll look this recipe over, say, "Hmm, I want to try this," and find out that it's pretty darn good.  Let me know.

Yankee Girl Cornbread Dressing

Make the cornbread:

2 eggs, beaten
2 cups buttermilk
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 cups cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2.  Mix together eggs, buttermilk and oil in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
3.  Add cornmeal, salt, baking soda and baking powder; stir with whisk to combine.
4.  Pour batter into greased 9-inch square baking pan.
5.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden.  Cool until ready to make stuffing.

Make the dressing:

Cornbread from above recipe, cooled and crumbled
3 slices oven-dried sourdough bread
6 tablespoons butter
2 cups chopped celery
1 large onion, chopped
4 cups chicken broth
1 tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. chopped fresh sage
2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. thyme, fresh or dried
1/4 cup dried cranberries (optional)
1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
3 eggs, beaten

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  In a large bowl, combine crumbled cornbread and dried sourdough bread slices: set aside.
3.  Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.
4.  Add the celery and onion and cook until transparent, approximately 5 to 10 minutes.
5.  Add the vegetable mixture to the cornbread mixture.
6.  Add the broth, mix well, taste, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
7.  Add chopped sage, chopped parsley, thyme and cranberries and nuts (if using).
8.  Add beaten eggs and mix well.
9.  Pour mixture into a greased pan and bake until dressing is cooked through, about 45 minutes.  Serves six to eight.

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