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.

Brown Butter Seared Scallops, Lentilles de Puy, Dressed Cress and Scallion Oil

As I sit out on my deck this Sunday afternoon, I feel the coming autumn chill in the air.  Clayton may be in a tank top sitting in a sliver of sun, but here in the shade I actually need a light sweater.  Although I’m sad that my tan will soon fade (leaving me the color, and general muscular consistency, of tapioca pudding), I am looking forward to how the cooler weather opens up my kitchen, allowing me to cook indoors without cooking myself in the ambient heat during the process.  Last night, although muggy, was temperate, so I reaquainted myself with my stovetop.  What better way than to pan-sear some plump, juicy, never-frozen, tender scallops?  Thanks to Marcus at Whole Foods for the recommendation (even if he was talking to someone else – and I was merely eavesdropping), although their sheer size and perfection had already reeled me in.  As I wandered the aisles with my six scallops in tow, I alighted upon the bulk bar, and before I knew it I was loading up on some lovely French lentils.  After throwing a few more items into the basket, I headed home, figuring out the meal I’d make on the way.  I visualized a bed of fragrant, steaming, and toothsome lentilles de Puy topped with perfectly crisp-crusted scallops and drizzled with a verdant, herbaceous oil.  And I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what I made…

Brown Butter Seared Scallops, Lentilles de Puy, Dressed Cress and Scallion Oil

6 very large fresh sea scallops
3 tbs butter
1lb French lentils
3 slices bacon
1 medium onion
6-10 cloves
1″ peeled fresh ginger
3-4 cloves garlic
1 medium carrot
1 qt chicken broth
zest and juice of 1 lemon
watercress
curly parsley
scallions
1 shallot
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper

Remove the paper husk of the onion, cut it in half, and stud 1 part of it with the cloves.  Mince the other half.

Peel and cut the carrot into 1″ pieces, crush and remove the paper from the garlic, and peel about an inch of fresh ginger root.

Rinse the lentils several times, and pick through them looking for little rocks and stuff, which I’ve never found but I still look for (thinking the one time I don’t look I’ll crack a tooth on something).

Bacon.  I cut these three slices into, like, 4-5 pieces each.

Into my deep saucepan it goes, where I fry it to just crisp.

Add the studded onion carefully to the pan, along with the carrots, minced onion, garlic, and  ginger.

Add the lentils, and stir everything well.

Cover everything with chicken stock, bring to a boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cover the pot.  It takes about 45 minutes for the liquid to be absorbed, and the lentils to soften (but not mushify).  When their texture is just right, remove from the heat…

… remove the clove studded onion and knob of ginger…

… and stir in the minced shallot, the lemon zest, and some chopped parsley.  Set aside, tilting the lid so some steam can escape, until service.

To make the scallion oil, chop the green onion roughly, then saute it for just a moment in hot EVOO – just long enough for the green color to pop, but not to fry.  Dump into a blender with 1 cup of chopped parsley and the juice from the lemon, then whir until smooth.  Transfer to a small squeeze bottle, and keep warm.

My scallops weren’t cheap…

… but they were amazing.  I should have put something nearby to demonstrate scale; these bad boys are at least an inch thick, and even fatter the way ’round.

I melt 3 tbs of butter to foaming in my small non-stick fry pan, and set my scallops – which I’ve dusted with sea salt and cracked pepper – on the heat, leaving plenty of room between them to breathe.  I leave them undisturbed to sear for 5 minutes, or until I see the opacity of the scallop deepen halfway up its side.

Using tongs, I gently flip each scallop, revealing their caramelized, butter-encrusted faces.  Another 5-7 minutes of searing on the reverse side, and they’re ready for plating.

Fragrant lentil caviar sweetened with carrot and emboldened with bacon; fork-tender sea-sweet scallops browned with butter and encased in crisp; scallion lemon and parsley EVOO dressed watercress and daubs of herbaceous oil.  A perfect marriage of land (pig), earth (beans), and sea (scallops) – all brought together for a fulfilling and delicious dinner on a stormy late summer’s night.

Gnarly Roasted Carrot Studded Osso Bucco

Osso bucco.  Those four syllables are synonymous with “the brightest delights of heaven concentrated on the tongue in a symphony of rich savory flavorful meat and vegetable loveliness” … or something like that.  And when the veal is from the inestimable Cato Corner Farm, in Colchester, CT — a place more known for its cheese than its equally fine pork, veal, and beef selection (thanks to H & W for taking us there after last weekend’s epic pig roast!), and the carrots were grown by my husbandman Farmer Clayton in Concord, MA, then the waxing poetic effect really kicks in with a vengeance.  I’m not sure why veal shanks braised in tomatoes and wine always commands such a massive price on restaurant menus, especially when superlative meat is available for $7.99/lb, like it was at the farmstand — which I why I make the dish at home whenever I can.  The enjoyment to be gleaned from this dish, however, is worth any price: a homestyle, chunky tomato sauce full of fresh farm flavors, draped over tender morsels of sweet meat falling off round smooth bones shot through with rich, delicious marrow.  Traditionally, the meal is served with a saffron-scented risotto and topped with a snappy garlic/parsley gremolata, but I wanted to capture more of a rustic feel, so I stewed the sauce with oregano and sage and served the dish with some beautiful gnarled roasted carrots.  (Clayton has been collecting the ugliest carrots he could find, digging them up all week.)  Hearty, honest, silken, savory and warm; we might not live on the farm, but we sure know how to bring, and use, the best of the farm home with us to the city for dinner night after night.

Gnarly Roasted Carrot Studded Osso Bucco

4 cross cut veal shanks (mine equal about 1 3/4 lbs)
EVOO
several celery stalks
8-10 carrots — the more gnarled, twisted, and mutant, the better!
1 small red onion
1 small white onion
1 head garlic
1 cup red wine
1 qt beef stock
1 large can crushed tomatoes
2-3 sprigs fresh oregano
1 handful fresh sage leaves
1 small loaf french bread
grated parmesan cheese
black pepper, sea salt

This dish starts like many other braised meat recipes: I rinse and dry the yummies, dredge them with flour, salt, and pepper.  I roughly chop my celery, onion, and a couple of my least interesting carrots (read: anything straight enough to have purchased at the supermarket ), then separate, crack, and peel all my cloves of garlic.  A swirl of EVOO goes over medium-high heat in my largest, deep-sided pan.

Searing the meat does several things: it locks in juices and flavor, it caramelizes cut sides of muscle, jump starting the cooking process, and it adds a crusty fond to the pan, which will contribute deliciousness (and thickeningness) to the sauce.

Using tongs, I flip them shanks when the bottom side has developed a healthy brown sear.  The house already smells good.  When both sides are properly encrusted, I remove them from the pan and set ‘em aside for a few moments. I return the pan to the heat and …

… dump in my chopped veggies.  They get stirred around over the heat until they just start to soften.  The smell in the kitchen just intensified to fantastic.

Here’s where I add the wine.  This is just a nice table red; Clayton enjoyed drinking the rest of the bottle with his dinner later.

I splash about a cup into the pan and stir well, scraping up all the nice brown bits of meaty meat clinging to the hot surface.

I coulda shoulda woulda used fresh tomatoes today, but I done forgot to ask Clayton to pick some.  It would have added about an hour to my cook-time, too – and given the hour plus I needed to braise the veal, that would have meant a very late dinner.  So, a can it is; this brand is organic and quite tasty.

We don’t have to get our herbs from the farm, since our little roof-deck garden is still producing sturdy rich oregano and robust sage leaves.  I don’t bother removing these from their stems…

… I just throw them, stems and all, along with my quart of beef stock, into the pan.  After a good stir, encouraging the wine, tomatoes, and stock to get to know each other and submerging my herbs in their luscious liquid, I reduce the heat to simmer, cover, and walk away for an hour — during which time the fantastic aromas emanating from the stove shoot heavenward, ascending all the way to “maddening”.

Now that’s what I call a chorus line.  Look at all them legs!  Clayton’s collection of heirloom ugly carrots are a delightful study in what vegetables really look like.  Not only are they more visually stimulating than the typical, perfectly conical, dully orange Bug Bunny carrots, but they taste richer, more carrot-y, too.  I scrub them very well, using a vegetable brush, and paying close attention to the little bits of stem left.  No – I don’t peel them.  It’s rusticity I want; my carrots don’t need denuding.

These lovelies get laid Walton-family style in a sweet little package of aluminum foil, draped with EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, and a sprigs’ worth of oregano leaves.  I wrap the package up tightly, being careful not to pierce the foil, then I put this on a baking sheet and throw it into a 350° oven.  They take about 35-40 minutes; just enough time for me to finish off the rest of the meal.

It’s been an hour, and my veal is so tender it has already begun to fall off the bone.  I remove the lid so that the liquid can reduce…

… and so I can melt some butter.  I don’t have a microwave, but I do have stainless steel bowls I can float over already boiling stuff to jerry-rig a quick double-boiler.  What?  It’s efficient! I add about a tablespoon of fresh minced garlic, and mix well.

This gets spread across my split french loaf.  Add some healthy sprinklings of grated parmesan cheese, chuck in the oven for 10 minutes, and I gots me some toasty cheesy garlic bread for sopping.

Didn’t I mention the meat was falling off the bone?  Or perhaps it’s more apt to say that the bones are falling out of the meat.  Either way, it’s ready.

I remove the meat from the sauce to a warmed waiting serving platter.  Using a deep spoon, I transfer the sauce from the pan to a large deep bowl.  Although I could serve it chunky like this, I like a smooth sauce for my Michael Shanks..

I’ve used a variation of this trick to pound peppercorns in my mortar and pestle without scattering them all over the kitchen, and it works for hand-blending, too.  This bowl is too big for a single-width of cling-wrap, so I tightly affix two overlapping sheets to the bowl’s edges, sliding my hand-blender through the open pocket.  Then I happily whirr away, enjoying the sensation of *not* flicking my eyes, face, clothes, and kitchen walls with hot tomato sauce.

See?  All these spatters are *not* all over me.  And I have a perfectly pureed garden tomato sauce!

The last step is to plate my carrots, which are absolutely tender and slightly caramelized when I unwrap them from their foil sleeping bag.

An aromatic hour and a half later, and I have a full platter of richly stewed tender veal shanks with roasted sweet carrots.  The flavors are hearty and wholesome, warming to the core, fulfilling and comfortable.  Clayton summed up my cooking just right the other day; he called it “urban comfort food” – and I couldn’t agree more with him.  My place in the city serves the farm on a plate, and this married-to-a-gentleman-farmer-redneck girl loves it.