2.02.2012

pleasant in the morning


I've been waking up early for about two weeks now, with the intention of getting work done before anyone else is awake to distract me. Sometimes I make it downstairs around 5am, other days, like today, it's closer to 6:00. Either way, it's still dark, but feels a whole lot more soothing and inviting than, say, the darkness at 2:30am does.

These morning hours feel like they've been waiting, silently, for someone to join them in this gentle pause before the day explodes. And now I'm here, and we keep each other company.

"What do you actually do down there?" Josh asked me dubiously the other day, mildly suspicious of my willingness to rise at such an hour.

The first thing I do, of course, is make tea. Because, though I'd like to think it's me these hours of stillness were waiting for, I'm pretty sure it's actually the tea. Choosing a mug, boiling the water, trying to keep track of the time so that my favorite jasmine pearl tea doesn't over-steep, and then sitting, in the dark dining room illuminated only by the glow spilling across from the kitchen light, two hands wrapped around the warm vessel and sipping slowly - these are the quiet, deliberate activities that early morning is made for. Tea is the bridge, the companion that gives me a place in the darkness, that eases the dawn out of the night, that guides me over to the computer so that I may sit here typing without a sense of jarring wrongness, that clears the haze from my mind and eyes so that I can notice things.

One recent morning I spent a long time noticing how clean my kitchen was.

Let's be clear right from the start that this was due to no effort of my own. After our impromptu dinner party broke up, parents stuffing young ones into winter jackets and boots and herding them out into the night, headed for their respective bedtime routines, Josh had parked himself in the kitchen and cleaned. In the time it took me to putter about the living room, putting away straggling toys, and cajoling our own boys to begin preparing for sleep, Josh had almost everything washed and put away. By the time the boys were each snuggled into their beds, lights out, there was no sign that twelve people had shared a meal in our dining room.

The man is good.

I can, however, take credit for the reason we had so many people over in the first place. And by 'credit' I mean 'blame for something slightly wasteful that could have been frustrating had it not been for the last-minute save of a dinner party.'

I made an enormous, gigantic batch of chili con carne.


After Kalen, Wylie and I each had a bowl of it the first night, without even making a dent in the way the chili filled the huge stockpot, I knew I was in trouble.

Our freezer is completely full right now. With precisely what is a bit of a mystery. The top layers, the ones you can see without moving things around, are populated with lots of frozen berries, various types of stock, leftover ice cream from Kalen's 6th birthday party (which I keep meaning to tell you about. Soon.), cubes of frozen kale pesto, artist's palates of acrylic paints the boys aren't ready to wash away yet, and a massive pork shoulder. Underneath? Well, we'll find out as we start peeling back the layers, using up what we've stored to make room for new food.

With that batch of chili, though, it appeared that I had jumped the gun. There was nowhere to put it, and even with a diet of nothing but chili it was clear it would be a week before my family saw the bottom of that stockpot.

I love it when these slightly illogical actions of ours, the ones that cause our loving husbands to ask incredulously why we never thought to consider if there was a final destination for our excess, lead to loveliness.

Because loveliness it was when two of our favorite families answered our call to action, and a cold Sunday night turned warm and festive-feeling. There were skyscrapers to build and dress-up games to play. There were jokes to be told and business ideas to hash out. There was a sweet, sweet 7-week-old baby to snuggle. There was a brilliant salad dressing made with Greek yogurt and salsa, and a ridiculously easy and delicious dessert involving bananas sautéed in coconut oil. And there was warm, cake-style cornbread to dip into our generous bowls of rich, fragrant chili. By the end of the night that chili, the problem that had lead us to that point, was all but gone.


A late January dinner with friends. The best possible solution to the best possible type of problem to have. It's even worth another round of intentional problem-causing, I'd say.

And this is the point where I imagine you are all expecting me to tell you how to make your own mythically-large pot of chili, for a cold winter's night potluck or for Superbowl Sunday or for your own, not-nearly-so-full-to-the-brim-as-my-mine, freezer.

I hate to disappoint, but no. It's not my recipe to share; all I did was follow the rock-solid instructions from the fine people over at Cook's Illustrated, who included it in The Best Recipe. (And, I presume, in The New Best Recipe, although I don't have our copy in front of me to confirm.) I'm sure the recipe is available on blogs and forums across the web, but if you want the recipe (and believe me, you do) without picking up a new cookbook, might I suggest you follow this link where you can get a free 14-day membership to the Cook's Illustrated website, including access to their recipe. (And no, no one has asked me to push you in that direction. I just think it's nice to respect copyright issues.) I increased the batch size, obviously, but you might want to be more conservative in your chili-making. However, I do highly recommend following the recipe's advice to get dried chiles and toast and grind them yourself, as it adds a wonderful depth of flavor to the chili. Plus, it smells really great when you're doing it.

So yes, I think you should make some chili, whether the same kind I made or your own favorite recipe. Because you'll then naturally look around for things to accompany it, and (this is where my real contribution to the whole endeavor comes in) I'm here to tell you that you would be very, very wise to land on cornbread.

The cornbread, meek and innocent as it may seem, is actually quite important.

I realize there are strong opinions out there about cornbread. I've witnessed it right here, in my own family. When a Northern girl marries a Southern boy, the cornbread debate is bound to come up. And I'm not here to make a definitive, final case for any of the different styles. Both Northern and Southern styles share the love in this house. (Though I would like to give a shout-out to custard cornbread, which is so old-fashioned I hardly ever hear about it anymore, but which is so uniquely good I might need to help it stage a come-back.) So if you have a favorite version, the one you grew up eating or maybe the one that trumped all others in a cornbread challenge, you can keep it, no defense necessary. And make it, filling your kitchen with it's unmistakable sweet nutty scent, so that it can sidle over and take its rightful place next to your bowl of chili, a delicate contrast to the chili's hearty richness and heat. Any cornbread would be tickled pink to be there.

However. Making cornbread to accompany your chili is not the only reason you should be making cornbread. You should also be making it to have leftovers. To eat for breakfast, to be precise. And in this very particular application, not just any cornbread will do.

You need cake-style, Northern cornbread.

This probably seems polarizing, I know, but hear me out. If you're going to eat leftover cornbread the next morning (next to your fried eggs, preferably), you need to heat it up. And not just warmed in the oven, but toasted. (Please pay attention, because this is where the case for Northern cornbread really picks up steam.) When you're toasting the cornbread, you're not merely warming it up to refresh it. You're preparing it for butter. But if you slather a pat of butter across the smooth top of your cornbread, you'll end up with a slick sheen across the surface, and greasy drips down the side.

This is not what we're going for.

You need a piece of cornbread that is thick enough, tall enough, to be split horizontally, with each half retaining its integrity as bread, and not just crust. Every Southern cornbread I've ever had has been too thin to accomplish this. But this ability is vital, because you need to toast the interior of the bread. You need an exposed crumb to get all crunchy and toasty, with bits here and there starting to singe brown, so that each bite is a study in smooth versus prickly. You need a tender surface that you can schmear butter into, not merely across. You need that absorption factor.

You need Northern cornbread.

I think, in fact, that you need my mom's cornbread. That's always been my favorite for toasting, and for good reason. It's nice and thick, which we've already established as a priority. But also, it's very moist and rich, so the toasting process doesn't risk drying it out. It's just a little bit sweet, which is pleasant in the morning next to a cup of something hot. And, unlike many Northern cornbreads, it's already gluten-free; no adaptation from me is needed.

Surely, you can stick to your current favorite cornbread for most applications. But if you think there's a chance you'll have leftovers, and you'd like to try eating them for breakfast the next morning, I really urge you to give this one a go, at least once. Because, really, I think we've all got room for one more cornbread in our lives.


Mom's Cornbread
Yields one 8x8 pan

2½ cups yellow cornmeal
1 Tablespoon packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 liquid cups lowfat buttermilk
1½ Tablespoons oil, melted butter, or bacon fat (I admit to preferring the bacon fat. Sometimes I do a blend of bacon fat and melted butter. But canola oil works great, too.)

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Generously butter an 8x8 baking pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, brown sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda.

In a small bowl, combine the eggs, buttermilk and oil. Add to the dry ingredients and stir until well-blended. (It will be a very loose batter.) Pour into prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until firm with the top beginning to turn golden brown. Serve warm, at room temperature, or toasted with butter.

7 comments:

  1. Gorgeous words Tara. Absolutely gorgeous.
    I love those kind of gatherings too, and am thankful we have many of them with my husbands family. We all get invited around to my mother-in-laws when she has cooked up a big pot of pho or feels like making Bahn Xeo. Not for any other reason than to eat beautiful food, no need for an occasion or event. Just because.
    P.s Can your husband give mine kitchen cleaning lessons ;-)

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  2. Emma - Oh, pho! I haven't had that in years. Now I want some. Your family gatherings sound like my kind of event. And the kitchen cleaning part? I think it's ingrained in him from his years spent in professional kitchens. He cooks messy, but he's good at cleaning it up afterwards. ;)

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  3. I've been gluten-free for about 3 years. My mother for just over 15, so I have long been aware of the gluten-free life-sytle and some of the wheat-free alternatives. These are often flavorless pucks that may visually represent the original goodie intended, but that's about it. I'm sure you've discovered some many of these delight-less creatures in your time.

    I love cooking, but what I love(d) even more is baking. There was one Christams, before becoming gluten-free that I made thousands of Christmas cookies. Pulling two all-nighters for the love of baking, with both of my kitchen-aid mixers running full tilt until Christmas eve. Sadly, since then, I am down to only one mixer, which is no longer on the receiving end of much baking love.

    So, when I found your blog, I felt this strange magnetic pull. I mulled it over for a few weeks. Bookmarked it, checked back, sat pensively by, feeling more eager, and even some hope. Having company over for dinner last night, i decided to give your perfectly paired Chili con Carne and — oh, could it really be? — real cornbread a try. I logged into my Cooks Illustrated account the night before, prepared my iPhone shopping list, and head out first thing. As I also have a need for a gluten-free cake in my near future, while not perfectly paired in with the spiciness of the dinner selection, I also decided to try your Almond Wedding Cake recipe, and I desperately want to escape this dark cloud of the sadness in gluten-free baking with your hard work only barely resembling the desires, and memories, of your sweet-craving palate.

    As we sat down to eat in our humble little kitchen, being the only gluten-free member of the party I wasn't the only one that was surprised. Our friends commented, "Oh my, the cornbread actualky tastes like, well, real cornbread," was perfect with the infallible Cook's Illustrated Chili con Carne. Warm, with butter, delicious.

    Then it was on to the Almond Cake after a brief intermission. I warned with hesitation, and great reservation that we had ice-cream as a back-up, expecting the worst, well, the normal. I was wrong. I was dead wrong. Moist, soft, amazing. I went for the 7 ounces of Almond Paste, wanting to start simple, thinking that less complicated might lead to the greater possibility of success. I made a delightful, but not overpowering vanilla buttercream — gently covered and not slathered — for the cake. I can't tell you how good we all thought it was.

    My mother has a hard time with rice flour these days. A small amount will do, but not too much or she suffers from similar symptoms, but not as severe, thank goodness, to her wheat allergy. She's been feeling a bit depressed about it for a while, because she now feels like a lot of her alternatives are now gone as well. I can't wait to share both of these with her. The cornbread contains no rice flour, and the almond cake an acceptably small amount for her digestive abilities. She will be in heaven.

    Thank you for sharing both your stories, and your recipes. I love them both, and I can't wait to try, and read more. You're an angel. You've given me hope and you've made my life better, which, for a pregnant lady having a very hard time with hormones and feeling down at the moment, is a wonderful thing.

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  4. I use to wake up early in the morning; however, I have gotten out of the habit, unfortunately. After reading this post, I think I am going to start returning to that old habit though. You made me realize how much I actually miss those quiet mornings.
    I have been looking for a good cornbread recipe. I have had the hardest time-one recipe was hard and gritty with a bland flavor and the other was to moist and had a doughy texture. Your recipe seems to have the perfect balance of wet and dry ingredients so I will definitely have to give it a try!

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  5. Julie - I am so, so happy to hear this! Good food and hope are wonderful to have, indeed.

    Makayla - It's funny, I never thought I was a morning person until I started willingly getting up early, and now I love it so much I can't figure out why everyone doesn't do it! (Although I guess that would make the whole alone-in-the-quiet part more difficult.) I hope you like the cornbread!

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  6. How is it that I've gone my whole life without ever having had morning-after toasted cornbread?

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  7. Butter - Too many people have suffered the same fate. At least now you don't have to go the REST of your life without it!

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