July 25, 2018

Dear friends,
I turned on my oven during that god-awful sweat fest last week (I don’t have central air) and it turned out to be worth it. In my mid-summer hunger for all things corn, I came up with a recipe for tamale pie made with a Cuban picadillo filling and a jalapeno-spiked cornmeal crust that for once was more biscuit than cake.

I can still taste it, and that isn’t just the Tums talking. The casserole was seriously delicious, and walked that fine line between comforting and hip. Picadillo, as you may or may not know, is a spicy version of ground beef hash that’s practically the national dish of Cuba. It is usually served au naturale with black beans and rice. I gave it a twist by blanketing it with a jalapeno-cornmeal crust. The bare bones of the two recipes are from “A Taste of Cuba” by Linette Creen.

I thought about putting some first-of-the-season corn in the crust, but I had already scarfed down the half-dozen ears I bought at Seiberling Farm in Norton. You can add a half cup of kernels if you want. Likewise, you may use fresh or pickled jalapeños or omit them from the crust, but I would recommend buying green olives for the filling if you have none on hand. They add a salty acidity that cuts right through the fattiness of the meat.

This is a modest meal that can be assembled in 15 minutes. In the half-hour or so it took to bake, I repaired to the patio with a gin and tonic. You may substitute a mojito if you want.

JALAPENO TAMALE PIE

Picadillo:
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 packet Sazon Goya or 1 tsp. ground annatto (achiote) or turmeric
1 medium onion, diced
1 bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 1/4 lbs. lean ground beef
1 can (14.5 oz.) whole peeled tomatoes
1/2 cup halved pimiento-stuffed green olives
Salt, pepper to taste

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add oil and when warm, stir in Sazon Goya, annatto or turmeric. When the oil is hot, add onion, bell pepper and garlic and sauté until onion is limp. Stir in cayenne and cumin.

Increase heat to medium-high. Add ground beef, breaking it up and cooking until it is no longer pink. Chop the canned tomatoes and add them along with the juice. Partially cover pan, reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Most of liquid should be gone. If not, simmer uncovered until about a half-cup of liquid remains. Stir in olives and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cornmeal crust:
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tbsp. white all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp. milk
1 egg
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. minced fresh or pickled jalapeno

Stir together cornmeal, flour, salt, sugar and baking powder in a medium bowl. In a measuring cup, combine milk, egg and olive oil and beat with a fork. Pour over the cornmeal mixture and stir just until smooth. Stir in the jalapeños.

To assemble, spoon meat mixture into a lightly greased, 2-quart casserole. Spread cornmeal batter evenly over meat. Bake in a preheated, 350-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Makes 4 servings.

TIDBIT
I didn’t know Jonathan Gold well, but I admired his writing tremendously. It was as intricate and delightful as a Mozart symphony, and made the rest of us look like hacks in comparison.

Gold, the only food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, died Saturday after a lightning-swift bout of pancreatic cancer. He was just 57.

Gold’s restaurant reviews in the Los Angeles Times, Gourmet magazine and LA Weekly were poetic commentaries on life, class and culture as well as food. I reveled in the way he could turn a phrase or sum up a restaurant or a certain L.A. lifestyle in one or two sentences, like this:

“Most great cooking is about deliciousness. (Chef Jordan) Kahn’s is about the intersection of perception and space.”

and this:
“…Spago’s cooking flickers around the edges of memory and desire while never quite succumbing to them.”

and this:
“Lucques is what you might think of as an aspirational restaurant, a place that sculpts Southern California life into not what it is, but what it should be. Even if you spend an eccentric amount of time at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, your stone fruit salad with ricotta salata is never going to look like Suzanne Goin’s does, partly because you don’t know how to cut the nectarines in precisely the right way, but also because you are never going to persuade the farmer to give you her very best box of nectarines.”

For a treat, search out some of Gold’s reviews and settle in for the symphony.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Cold tomato soup with mojo shrimp; brined, grilled pork chops, grilled corn; open-faced sloppy Joes on buttered, toasted ciabatta buns; avocado and fried egg on toast; tamale pie.

What I ate in/from restaurants last week:
A double cheeseburger with sautéed onions at Whattaburger in Wadsworth; roast pear and blue cheese flatbread, taco lettuce wraps with chicken at the Cheesecake Factory in Legacy Village; gyoza dumplings at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo; a cheeseburger and fries from Swenson’s.

THE MAILBAG
From Gillie Aked, Bridgnorth, UK:
I regularly by XL eggs (local new-laid from farmers market) to make scrambled eggs and omelettes, as it doesn’t matter about size. Also, they make great hard-boiled eggs for salads and egg mayonnaise (hard-cooked in American!). With a little care they can be cooked so that the centres are just slightly runny which is perfect halved on a salad. I also use the whites for meringue and the yolks for mayonnaise, just adjusting the proportions of sugar to egg white and oil to yolk. The only thing I don’t use them for is cake baking where the size really does matter.

I love reading your column — I feel quite nostalgic for the ten years I spent living in Hudson and buying the Beacon Journal every day, devouring the cooking pages so I could “cook American” like my friends. I have Hudson friends coming to stay soon with me in the UK — in the rural county of Shropshire where we still have a weekly cattle auction — and shall take great delight in introducing them to one of our five local butchers where the meat hangs in the window, the hams and cold meats are all home-cooked, and the pies and pasties are baked on the premises. Thank you for keeping my memories going.

Dear Gillie:
Your note is so lyrical I have to share all of it. Now I am nostalgic for rural England, where I spent some of my happiest vacations with my mother. Thanks for writing.

From Debbie:
I do not have the recipe for Jack Horner’s pancakes but I have attached a family favorite that I have been making for 40 years. I add blueberries when they are readily available. The batter also makes great crepes — just thin by adding additional milk and pour into a crepe pan. I may purchase the club soda your reader remembered and try it rather than milk. By the way, I use Rumford Baking Powder, which makes very light pancakes.

LIGHT PANCAKES
1 1/4 cups flour
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1 egg
3 tbsp. oil
1 cup milk (or more)

Blend dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add egg, oil and 1 cup milk. Mix until smooth. Add more milk if batter is too thick.

Portion batter onto a preheated griddle or skillet brushed with oil. Flip when bubbles begin to appear or bottom appears to be golden brown. Continue cooking until bottom is golden brown. Makes 16 4-inch pancakes.

Dear Debbie:
I’m sorry we can’t find Jack Horner’s recipe, but any pancake is a winner in my book. Thanks.

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