Creamed Corn Skillet with Flounder, Beets, Bacon, and Cilantro Oil

DSCN4255I get my inspiration for dinner in all sorts of random ways.  Sometimes just a whiff of something wafting through the air will remind me of a ghost of flavors past.  Sometimes a color engenders a need for the flesh of something similarly hued.  But usually, I trawl food porn websites like Tastespotting or FoodGawker (neither of which has ever accepted any of my photos for their site — a challenge I will continue to try to overcome!) for images that get my juices running.  I also skim the menus for restaurants I can’t afford and try to make what I read there, so that I can enjoy their chef’s imagination without having to pay those prices (sorry peeps, we’re on a *very* tight budget these days).  For this meal, I have The Phantom Gourmet to thank – sort of.  I often have their TV show on local Boston-area restaurants playing in the background while I’m futzing around on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes they have my complete attention, but more often than not I just hear what they’re talking about — and that’s what happened here.  I vaguely overheard something about creamed corn, and something about a skillet — and that’s all I needed.  Creamed corn is one of my favorite side dishes, hailing from my mother-in-law’s down-home redneck kitchen; she’d pick the corn herself from their garden and spent hours and hours creaming it and freezing it in gallon bags to eat throughout the year.  I never went to visit without picking up a few frosty sacks of that golden goodness, but now that we live 2000 miles away I have to make it myself.  And although I LOVE her simple Southern recipe, I have made some adjustments to mine to amp up the deliciousness to Lolita standards.  In this case, a piping hot cast iron skillet blisters a healthy serving of cheesy creamy corn, topped with some flaky pan-seared flounder, chunks of bacon, gemstones of purple beets, and an artful drizzle of bright, herbaceous cilantro oil.  A filling but also light warm winter’s night meal, wholesome and delicious.  I think Rose, my mother in law, were she here in Boston instead of down in rural Georgia, would agree.

Creamed Corn Skillet with Flounder, Beets, Bacon, and Cilantro Oil

1 bag frozen yellow corn
4 slices bacon
2 beets
1 bunch cilantro
3/4 lb flounder filets
1 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
1 cup heavy cream
milk
EVOO
4 tbs butter, divided
2″ sprig fresh rosemary
sea salt, cracked black pepper
flour for dusting
juice of 1 lemon

DSCN4238My beets will take the longest, so I get them started by scrubbing them clean.  I’m really only planning to use a few little cubes — I have a vision, y’see? — but cooked beets hold well so I’ll use the leftovers tomorrow in a salad.  (I know I said I hate leftovers, but beets are an exception, since they taste as good cold as warm.)

DSCN4243They get doused in EVOO, salt, and pepper, and paired with my sprig of rosemary, then wrapped tightly in foil paper.  I throw them in the oven on 350 for an hour or so – until they are tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork.  (In all honesty, I was baking cookies in the oven at the same time, and I sort of just let these go until I’d made all 6 batches.  You can’t really overcook a beet.   But I was worried that my cookies would taste like rosemary, since the oven was so redolent with the scent … they didn’t.)  It takes beets a while to cool, so I let them do so on the counter for about 20 minutes, so I could peel them and dice them before setting them aside.

DSCN4240Next, I remove the leaves from a bunch of cilantro and throw them into my blender thingy.  I add about 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), a squeeze of lemon juice, some salt and pepper, and a blend the hell out of it until I have a thick green viscous liquid.

DSCN4241Using my mesh spoon, I strain the green oil from its solids…

DSCN4242… using a spoon to press as much flavor and color out as possible.  I pour the oil into a squeeze bottle.  The rest of the green delish mush can be frozen and used to flavor something needing a pop of cilantro paste later.

DSCN4245Time for the creamed corn.

DSCN4246It all starts with bacon.  I chop my slices up roughly, and fry the bits out with lots of black pepper.

DSCN4247I remove the bacon to a paper plate to drain, then wipe most of grease out – leaving about a teaspoon of fat and as much of the toasted black pepper as possible in the pan as well.

DSCN4250I then set the heat to medium low, add the corn, cream, and grated cheese to the pan and get everything to a low simmer.

DSCN4251As that heats, I prep my flounder.  This huge filet came from Whole Foods today.  I had to trim a bit o’ skin off one edge, but it was a beautiful piece of fish.

DSCN4252As is easiest – and often best – with flounder, I toss it with salt, pepper, and flour…

DSCN4253… and pan-sear it in brown butter over high heat for about 4 minutes on each side.

This last bit went really fast, and I didn’t get to catch the picture.  After my fish is fully cooked, I move the pan off the heat, and place my two 8″ skillets onto two hot burners on my stovetop.  Using my hand blender, I whir a cup of my creamed corn into a thick mush before returning it to its saucepan for a hearty stir.  Then I pour half of the corn into each skillet – which are now hot – bringing the liquid gold to a bursting, bubbling boil.

DSCN4256I layer my planks of tender seared flounder over my thick, rich cheese and corn gravy.  A handful of perfect ruby beet cubes provide cool bites of sweetness, while the unctuous chunks of bacon stud the dish with salt and savor.  Generous squirts of cilantro oil add green to the visual and grass notes to the palate.  The sizzling pans keep the meal hot until the last bite, which Clayton and I scraped up with some crusty buttered bread.  I  need to use these cast iron babies more often, because every time I do, magic like this happens.

Chicken n’ Dumplins Cordon Bleu, with Arugula and “Cheater” Cheese Muffins


One of the first jokes I heard when I moved up here to Boston sounds more like a mantra than the one-liner it is: If you don’t like the weather here in New England… wait 5 minutes.  This week has, thus far, personified that way of life.  The down-home-cooking pictured here was prepared by yours truly and served up on Monday night, after a long, dark, dreary, windy, extremely wet and surprisingly cold August day. Tuesday was patches of the same, interspersed with random periods of clear blue sky and warm breezes.  But today… today it’s brilliant, cloudless, sunny, and HOT – a true summer day. I’ve gone from a long-sleeve sweater and sweatpants to tank-top and tap-pants in a matter of hours.  So even though just thinking of turning on my oven today makes me all sweaty and anxious, I sure am happy I did to make Monday’s dinner – even if we were too sodden to shop, and so only used the few things we had in the house and a boner recently bought at our go-to ghetto grocery store, Johnny’s Foodmaster.  But as this is Lolita’s riff on a standard chicken n’ dumplins, I did fancify it with a bit of ham and swiss cheese (stolen from Clayton’s luncheon meats supply) – just to make the mundane a bit more special. With a quick, two-ingredient salad and some garlicky “cheater” cheese muffins, this steaming hot and supremely satisfying pot-pie au gratin totally took the cold out of our bones, while culinarily combining our old Southern roots with our new Northern exposures. In the background, on the telly, Brigit Fonda is ostensibly contemplating killer crocodiles loose in Northern Maine (ala Lake Placid, a little gem of a movie), but she’s really thinking about the steaming chicken goodness just waiting under that crust of bubbly baked Swiss cheese. Back off, blondie!  This bowl’s MINE.


Chicken n’ Dumplins Cordon Bleu, with Arugula and “Cheater” Cheese Muffins

1 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breast (about 1.5 lbs)
2 stalks celery
2 carrots
1 onion
1 stick butter
1 qt chicken stock
garlic powder
1 package flour tortillas
arugula
fresh mozzarella cheese
EVOO
white balsamic vinegar
sea salt, cracked black pepper
1 can large buttermilk biscuits (yes, I used a can.  Sue me.)
shredded romano cheese


I started with a pat of butter and a large hot pan.


Just as my butter started to froth, I placed my large washed, patted dry, salted, and peppered chicken breast skin down into the pan, and I let it sear for a good 10 minutes, until the skin was brown and crispy and the breast had started to cook through. Meanwhile, I peeled and chop my onion, carrots, and celery.


I flipped my bird, moved it to the side of the pan, and dumped my aromatics into the pan, stirring well so the browned butter coated all the veggies thoroughly.


After the veggies softened slightly, I flipped my bird breast down again, added the quart of chicken stock to the pan, and using a wooden spatula to scrape up all the buttery fond, lowered the heat to medium, and put on the lid.  I let my chicken cook for 30 minutes this way, trying hard not to keep lifting the lid to inhale the amazing aroma.


Although I know they’re likely full of preservatives and stuff, I have always loved bread from a can – from the light and flaky crescent rolls to the super Grande buttermilk biscuits.  We try to keep a can on hand, just for days like Monday when going to the market just isn’t on the agenda.  They’re great in a pinch.  Still, as you may have seen before, dear reader, if you follow this blog, Lolita doesn’t like to just slap them on a cookie sheet — oh no!  I do a little something something to make them extra special.  A can comes with 8 biscuits; I used 4, and put the rest back in the fridge with the hope that I’d use them the next day (which I did, actually).  I first cut them into quarters…


… then I tossed them with the dry ingredients into a large zipper bag: a few shakes of garlic powder (not garlic salt), and some shredded romano cheese (about 1/2 cup).  I threw all this around until each little bread nugget was studded with flavor.  I then added 2 tbs of melted butter, sealed the bag, and tossed it around some more to fully coat everything.


Four nuggets per tin transformed these biscuits into savory muffins, and an extra helping of cheese on top makeed them crisp up.  See?  “Cheater” muffins – not from scratch, but they taste like it! They took 15 minutes to bake on 350° — just as much time as I needed to bake off the casseroles, so I set them aside until I was ready.


After 30 minutes, my chicken was fully cooked through and ready to be pulled off the bone.  Using tongs, I removed the breast from the pan, and set the heat to high so the chicken broth could continue to boil off and concentrate.


I carefully removed the meat from the bone, and it was luscious, juicy, and tender.  I roughly chopped it, making sure to keep some of the flavorful skin attached, and blended what little dark rib meat there was with the abundant white meat.

Using the ramekins I planned to serve in as templates, I cut perfect little discs of tortillas out of their larger selves.  My country mother-in-law revealed to me many years ago how well tortillas work in place of traditional dumplins – they have the same basic ingredients, and since they’re not dried like pasta-style dumplins, they don’t need as long to cook.  (I could make them from scratch, but it wasn’t that kind of night.)  They also create the unique texture one wants from the starch in this dish – soft and pillowy and a bit sticky.

These ramekins are 12 ouncers, I think (I don’t know why volume isn’t imprinted on the bottom of all kitchen items), just large enough for a decent sized dinner each. I buttered them down completely.  I did the same with a large muffin pan, so I could cobble together my white-trash “cheater” cheese muffins.

 


The first layer was an ounce or so of chicken broth, with a few of the veggies, too.


Then, I fit a layer of tortilla over that, studded the tortilla with a handful of chicken, then drowned it in chicken stock and veggies.  I repeated this layer about 5 times, until I reached the inner upper edge of the dish.


Knowing these would settle during cooking, I topped them with more chicken and veggies and set them on a cookie sheet and – along with my muffin tin – I threw everything into my oven for 10 minutes.


After that time, I pulled them out and happily saw that the top tortilla was fluffed and sodden but still intact, and that the edges had started to bubble over a bit.  I layered one slice of ham on top of each ramekin…


… and two slices of Swiss cheese, allowing the edges to hang off, on top of that.  I removed my muffins from the oven, turned the heat up to broil, then set my ramekins (on their cookie sheet, to make them easier to handle, and to keep the cheese from dripping) right under the heating element for 3-4 minutes.

 

I whipped together some arugula, the last of my North End fresh mozzarella (see Saturday’s post), some EVOO, white balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper for a salad – just the cold peppery milky compliment for the rich, savory main course.   A crispy, melted crust of nutty Swiss cheese and sweet ham revealed a steaming casserole of tender, flavorful chicken chunks nestled in between layers of ethereally soft white dumplin blankets, pillowed with pieces of barely-firm carrot and chunks of softened celery. My muffins bloomed on the plate; four little nuggets of buttery, garlicky,and cheesy stuck together to create crunchy outside/flaky inside bundles of joy.  It may have been cold outside, but with our favorite killer crocodile movie as the backdrop, and this yummy on the plate, it was warm and welcoming inside – and that’s all that counts.

Super-easy Sausage, Collard and Black Eyed Pea Saturday Night Soup

It’s COLD outside, and there’s another snowstorm looming.  I don’t freak out every time it snows like so many of my neighbors do; I mean, really, there are 5 grocery stores within walking distance of my pad.  And this is BOSTON – it snows here *every* winter.  People panic – I just do my thang.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t like me some heartwarming soup on a day like today, and a jar of my husband’s mother’s black-eyed peas called out my name from the depths of my pantry.  I’d picked up some collard greens at the local Johnny’s Foodmaster, and a pack of sweet Italian sausage.  A box of chicken stock, and some other basics, and I had me some super-easy, super-satisfying, super-yummy-in-the-tummy soup for dinner.

Super-easy Sausage, Collard and Black Eyed Pea Weeknight Soup

1 lb sweet Italian sausage (links cut from their casings, or bulk)
1 lb collard greens
1 qt black eyed peas
1 qt chicken stock
1 lemon
1 bunch cilantro
1 cup EVOO
sea salt, black pepper

… and that’s it.  Really. I said it was super-easy…


Here are my basics: the collards, the peas, and the stock.  But first…

… I split these 6 sausages out of their casings…


… and I crush them up in my hot wok, browning all the delicious bits through, so they’ll release all their inner oily goodness into the pan.  Sizzle and simmer on medium low for 5-8 minutes, until most of the pink is all gone…

…and all the meat has been kissed with crusty brown caramelization.


The collard greens were sinewy and leafy – just like they should be.  I washed ‘em…


… removed their stems (to the worm bin), rolled ‘em into cigars, and cut them into 1″ thick ribbons.  A few cross-cuts later, and I had nice wide chopped leafage.

 


I dump my greens into my wok over my pork, and I give everything a good toss or two.

See?


Then I douse the whole pot with my chicken stock, stirring well to mix and cover.


I lower the heat to medium, cover my pan, and let everything simmer for about 10 minutes.


See how my greens have melted and my broth has broken up my sausage?  Already the soup smells and tastes delicious, but I’m not done yet.

My mother-in-law’s black eyed peas are some of my favorite legumes; they taste like green peanuts, and their texture is firm and smooth, like starched butter.  I add all the contents of one large jar to my pan and mix well with my greens, sausage, and broth.  I cover, and walk away for another 10 minutes at least, set to simmer on medium low.

Meanwhile, I whip together a quick cilantro oil as garnish by first washing then blanching a bunch of cilantro leaves.  I should have removed more of the stem than you see here — there was a wee bit of stemmy string to my finished product I could have avoided.  Anyway, a few moments dunked into salted boiling water, then drained, then whirred in a blender and whisked with EVOO and sea salt — this greener than collard green snappy peppery herb turns into a fragrant flavor to squirt across my soup.

In the last few moments, I squeeze the juice and scrape the zest from half a lemon into my soup, then – using the flat of my wooden spoon – I systematically crush and blend at least half my peas into a thick sauce.  I add a dash of sea salt and a dash of cracked black pepper, just ’til a smuggled spoonful tastes right.  Another 5 minutes of simmering, and I remove from the heat and let sit for a moment before spooning up.


Served with slightly garlicky pumpernickel toast, my mound of greens and beans and spiced sausage sits in the middle of a moat of savory smooth broth.  A squirt of warm cilantro oil adds brightness and zest, picking up the complimentary citrus in the broth, but the flavor is warm and filling and savory homestyle.  Clayton and I dig in to fortify ourselves for the weather to come.  Dinners like this — they make winter something sweet to be enjoyed from indoors by keeping the cold away, and warming one to their very Bones.

 

Black-Eyed Peas