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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Silks

Fire. Heat. Smoke.

It's summertime and the grilling is easy.

Can anything possibly be better than grilled locally grown fresh corn on the cob slathered with melted butter and doused with salt?

Yep.

Elotes. Mexican street corn. Smeared with mayo or crema, rolled in cojita cheese, sprinkled with ground chili, and brightened with fresh lime juice, elotes ups the ante on our beloved grilled summer corn candy.

It's simple, fun, and downright fabulous. Don't let the ingredients form a roadblock. Sure, there's the whole mayo thing. Can't tolerate mayo? Use crema, sour cream, or butter. Want to take a leap of faith? Try a teeny weeny bit of jarred mayo or whip up a batch of airy, tangy, creamy, and easy homemade mayo. Don't want to bother with sourcing cojita cheese?  Crumbled feta or good quality parmesan are a great substitutes.

Celebrate summer. Snag a few ears of fantastic corn and fire up the grill.

Elotes.

Mayo.
Scratch made mayonnaise is unbelievably simple to throw together.

After cracking 1 whole Elmwood Stock Farm organic egg into a small mason jar, I added 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons neutral canola oil, 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 1/4
teaspoon dried mustard, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar. Using a hand held immersion blender, I creamed the mix before slowly drizzling in an additional 5 tablespoons  canola oil. Within seconds, it emulsified into a creamy dream. A mayonnaise miracle.  I slid the mayo into the refrigerator to chill and fired up the grill.

Corn.
There are no rules when it comes to grilling corn. Shucked or unshucked? Soaked or dried? Wrapped or naked? It's really doesn't matter, if you keep an eye on it during the process. The caramelized toasty bits are fine. Cinders, not so much.

I was lucky enough to stumble across fresh (newly harvested) Lincoln County corn at the farmers market. Still damp from the morning harvest, the fresh corn was a total win.

So, I'm a husk on kind of boy when it comes to grilling corn. The silks are another matter. Some folks don't bother removing the silks before grilling because they burn away from the heat and flames. Well, I guess I fall in the middle. You see, I grew up on a farm with a zero tolerance for corn silks. My father had kitchen drawers filled with very odd corn silk removing gadgets. No silks allowed. Period. Ever. Although I'm not quite that fussy, I removed some of the silks.

After peeling back the husks, I scraped away most of the silks, loosely formed the husks back over the corn, and tied the ends with a few wayward husk scraps.

When the fire died down, I spread out the glowing coals, and tossed the ears onto the grill. While I didn't bother soaking the corn, I did spritz the ears with water after they hit the heat. I poured myself a glass of wine, sat down next to the inferno, and turned the ears of corn every few minutes. As the husks burned away, bit of corn kernels singed and caramelized from the heat. After 10 minutes or so,
I pulled the corn from the grill and scraped away the burned husks before peeling back the inner husks to reveal the candied corn. Steamed. Charred. Caramelized. Gorgeous.

While the corn was still warm, I brushed it with the lime spiked mayo, tumbled cojita cheese over the top, dusted it with ancho chili powder, and finished with fresh lime zest before scattering lime wedges and fresh cilantro to the side.

Crunchy sweet summer corn. Light creamy mayo. Salty cojita cheese. Spicy ancho chili. Bright fresh lime. Perfect.

Not into a corn facial or wearing elotes on your face, hands, hair, and elbows? Try esquites, the daintier street corn salad version. Simply cut the corn off the cobs after grilling and toss the kernels with all the remaining good stuff.

Summer has arrived.
Get your grill on.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If You Grow It, I Will Come

So, fresh fennel really doesn't scream summer. I get it. Typically, it's thought of as a vegetable  most wildly available from autumn through spring. Well, think again. It can pop up at farmers markets in the early summer before it bolts and goes to seed. I stop by the farmers market two or three times a week, so not much gets by me. If someone plops a few bulbs of fennel between summer white cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and baby squash, I'm all in. Expect the unexpected. If you grow it, I will come.

While the bold licorice crunch of raw fennel is fine and dandy when shaved into salads or shredded into slaws, I prefer the softer subtle punch of cooked fennel. Braising and/or roasting fennel draws out the natural sugars and allows it to caramelize into tender anise-flavored fennel candy. That said, cooking it until tender doesn't always relegate fennel to an aromatic flavor boost for sleepy stews or braised meats. Come summertime, it can stand on its own.

Roasted Fresh Fennel with Marinated Sun Gold Tomatoes.

Roasting fennel straight up produces a nice charred crunch that lacks a little love. Sure, it's all fennely, but it's also somewhat  harsh.  I've found that a braise/roast combination allows the fennel to cook through and soften before it caramelizes.

I sliced the stalks from 2 medium sized Stonehedge Farm fennel bulbs (fronds reserved), removed the tough outer portions of the bulbs, sliced each bulb into quarters, and set them aside. After cutting the green tops from 3 Boyle County purple candy onions, I added them to the fennel quarters and tossed everything with extra virgin olive, salt, and cracked black pepper before tumbling them into a shallow saute pan. I splashed the vegetables with a 1/2 cup white wine, covered the pan with foil, and slid the pan into a preheated 425 degree oven.  After 25 minutes, I removed the foil, flipped the fennel quarters, and returned them to the oven to roast for an additional 30 minutes. During the last 10 minutes, I brushed the quartered bulbs on all sides with equal portions of fresh lemon juice and local honey.

When they were beautifully caramelized and softened, I pulled them from the oven to cool.

Although the throngs of vine-ripened large tomatoes haven't quite stormed the market, multi colored heirloom cherry tomatoes have definitely arrived. I quartered 1 pint of Marion County Sun Gold tomatoes and tossed them into a bowl. After showering the little jewels with snipped chives, I seasoned them with salt and cracked black pepper. I didn't want to get all fiddly with an emulsified vinaigrette, so I simply drizzled the tomatoes with 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and 3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar before tossing them with the broken vinaigrette.

After an hour or so, I tumbled the marinated quartered tomatoes over the fennel and finished with a few whispers of delicate fresh fronds.

Served at room temperature, the quirky salad meets side dish would pair wonderfully with grilled meat, chicken or fish. The subdued sweet anise undertones of the caramelized fennel poked through the light agro dulce (sweet and sour) glaze of the lemon and honey.  While the bits of char added slight candied licorice crunch, the perky tomatoes provided bright sun kissed freshness.

Roasted fennel with tomatoes.
An unexpected summer scream.
Fabulous.




Friday, June 19, 2015

I Never Sang For My Father

Even at a young age, my father was my hero. Although I vaguely understood all the sacrifices he made as a single military father, I felt his devotion.  Back in the day, widowed fathers gave their children over to aunts or others to care for the kids. He didn't. I'm still not sure why. He was a busy guy. Big time army man. When my mother passed away, he didn't hesitate to pack us up and move us back overseas. Although we must have been a burden, I never felt like a burden. He did the best he could to make a life for us in foreign lands surrounded by strangers. Don't get me wrong, I knew something was different. We were different. I was different. Everyone else had mothers and big families. We simply had each other and a few lovable revolving nannies.

My father was kind and strong, but not overly sentimental. He was army through and through. He could burn my little soul with one stern look or melt it into puddles when he smiled. I shot for smiles.

Throughout my life, Father's Day got lost in the ordinary days of summer. I never sent cards, wrapped gifts, or made any kind of deal about the whole thing. Father's Day was just June something or other. I called him on every Father's Day and that was enough. As a rambunctious trouble-shooting kid/teen/adult, he knew I loved him. I knew he loved me. We really didn't need the hoopla of a single day to point that out. When he got sick, everything changed. As he struggled to fight cancer, every day was Father's Day. Every day was precious and full. Me. Him. Us. Although  I couldn't take back the ordinary years of routine phone calls, every  ounce of love, respect, honor, and commitment poured out of my own fearful quest to connect during the tender days.  Eventually, our roles slowly reversed, rewound, and played back. Who was the dad? Who was the kid? We met in the middle. Simpatico.

I actually did sing for my father...once. The summer between 6th grade and 7th grade, I fancied myself a fine chanteuse. Although I couldn't sing a lick, I found my destiny. Armed with my battery powered cassette player and a lone cassette tape featuring Anne Murray's Snowbird, I wondered the fields of the farm singing along with my muse. As wonderful as she was, I was better. I was the complete package. The hip smiling family bands of the 70's couldn't hold a candle to my boyish puckered lips and smoldering eyes. I sang for the cows, chickens, ponds, trees,  blackberry bushes, rocks, or anything else that stood still to hone my craft. After several weeks of intense practice, I knew I was ready. Shrouded in secrecy,  I mounted a fierce snail mail letter writing campaign, promoting my self indulgent stratospheric talent,  to land an audition for a low budget variety show produced by a local Bowling Green television station. The world was my oyster.

One day, having returned home from my lakeside soft-serve ice cream day job, I received a letter congratulating me on my persistence along with a scheduled audition date. I had almost arrived. Blessed be Anne Murray.

That's when things got a bit iffy.  I was a kid. The television producers didn't know I was a kid. Bowling Green was 35 miles away as the crow flies, farther by car if driving on back roads through the hills and valleys of Allen County. You see, I needed a chauffeur to make my audition date. I needed a ride and had to face the music.

My dad spent a lot of time in his hot and humid woodshop. With lathes lathing and buzzsaws blaring, he didn't hear me enter his hallowed space. Beaming with confidence, I fessed up, told him my plans, and asked him for a ride to my audition. Sweaty sawdust dripped from his forehead. The singed heat of ripped wood burned my eyes. It must have been 110 degrees in that little shed. After turning off the saws and lathes, he cracked open a window and told me to sing my song. Suddenly wracked with nerves, I fumbled with the clunky buttons of the cassette player. Click. Rewind. Click. Fast Forward. Click. Pause. Click. Click. Click. Play. I cranked the volume as high as it could possibly go and belted out, "Beneath the snowy mantle cold and clean, the unborn grass lies waiting for its coat to turn to green...". On and on and on.  Anne and I sang the entire song. When I finished, it was so quiet I could hear chiggers crawling through my cotton socks. Dead silence. He didn't flinch. He didn't laugh. He didn't do anything. He closed the window  and simply said that he couldn't take me to my audition. Gentle giant. No excuses. No explanations. Game over. And with that, I shuffled through the gritty sawdust on my way out of the woodshed and closed the door on my cabaret career. Although somewhat relieved, I hadn't felt such disappointment since he flat out refused years earlier to buy me a chimpanzee as a playmate. Ever resilient, I moved on. I had frogs to gig, catfish to catch, and ice cream to scoop.

A few days after my unfortunate near brush with fame, I was catching up on some early morning Shirley Temple re-runs when I heard ridiculous noises spilling from  the front yard. Hell, I tried not to think much about the raucous because my dad was always wiring fences, splitting firewood, or just sawing things.  Although annoying, it was par for the course. After a while, the noises died down and he called me outside. Tucked into a corner of the front yard by a small stone wall and seemingly floating on air, he had fashioned a high bar. A. High. Bar. Towering 8' from the ground, he managed to jerry-rig, build, and firmly secure a 2"x 5' metal pole between two large mature maple trees. A horizontal bar of my own. I was dumbstruck. It was magnificent. Somehow and somewhere along the way, he'd remembered that I always wanted to become an Olympic Gold Medal Award winning gymnast. All I needed was a horizontal bar to hone my craft. My head filled with thoughts of double twist flips, release moves, and nailed landings. I knew big time gymnasts worried about those sorts of things and I wanted/needed to embrace that worry.  The world was my oyster...again.

That's what fathers do.
They help build dreams.

Oh sure, I never became an acclaimed cabaret singer or an Olympic gymnast. In the long run, it really wasn't about reaching those lofty goals. it was about the journeys.
And the dreams.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Pick One. Eat Five.

I was never a good strawberry picker. Whether dispatched to forage the family farm for wild strawberries or carted away to crawl around endless rows of ankle high berries through dusty U-Pick strawberry fields, I was that kid. You know the one? The grazer. The kid who ate everything. Pick one. Eat five. That was my game. Full belly. Empty baskets. Small hauls.

Not much has changed, really. Well, not that much. Nowadays, I don't pick a lot of strawberries.
When they're in season, I'll stop by the farmers market and nab a pint on my way to work. Like clockwork, they're gone before I get to work. Morning snacks. Stained fingers. Stained lips. Hulls on my shirt. Empty baskets. Happy country boy.

Last week, I changed things up a bit and stopped by the market after work. Game changer. Armed with full baskets of Henry County strawberries, I finally (and coyly) shared a few strawberries with Michael.

So, here's the deal. With strawberry season just getting under way, there will be plenty of time for shortcakes, ice creams, macerated sauces, and salads. With that in mind. I took my drive-by stash down an unexpected detour.

Grilled Spatchcocked Chicken with Fresh Strawberry-Bourbon Barbecue Sauce.
Simple and fun.

Mise en Place.
Barbecue Sauce.
After hulling and chopping 2 cups of Henry County strawberries, I tumbled them into a food processor before adding 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 minced shallot, 1/2 cup light brown sugar, 1/2 cup ketchup, 1/2 cup Woodford County Country Rock sorghum, 2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, 1/4 cup Makers Mark bourbon, salt, and cracked black pepper. I pureed the mix, strained it into a sauce pan, simmered the seedless sauce for 35 minutes, and pulled it from the heat to cool.

Chicken.  
So, I really didn't want to get all fiddly with turning several pieces of chicken around the grill, so I spatchcocked (butterflied) a whole Marksbury Farm chicken. Grilling or roasting a whole spatchcocked chicken allows it to cook evenly and more quickly.  Using kitchen shears, I removed the backbone from the neck to the tail, trimming some excess fat along the way. To help the chicken flatten out, I flipped the splayed chicken over and sliced the piece of cartilage covering the center of the breast bone (some folks remove the entire breastbone), flipped it back over and cracked the bird until it was evenly flattened. Instead of removing the wing tips (personal favorite), I tucked them under the breast before seasoning the chicken with smoked salt and cracked black pepper. With the cock spatched, I set it aside.

Fire.
I stacked a heaping pile of charcoal into the center of the grill, lit it up, and let it rip. When the coals were ashen and ready to go, I scooped them to one side of the grill to allow for two heat sources. After tossing soaked hickory chips onto the glowing embers, I nestled the chicken onto the cooler side of the grill, closed the lid, and let the chicken cook for 30-35 minutes, turning and flipping it every 10 minutes or so.  When the internal temperature reached 165 degrees and the juices ran clear, I brushed the chicken with the strawberry-bourbon barbecue sauce and slid it over to the hot side of the grill. As the heat caramelized the meat, I turned, basted, moved, and babysat the chicken until it was burnished and lacquered with bits of char before removing it from the grill to rest.

Messy business. Held together by the candied sticky skin,  the tender juicy meat slipped off the bones with whispering ease. Pull. Swipe. Suck. Repeat. Finger food. Funny, while fortified with sorghum and brown sugar, the sauce wasn't achingly sweet. The bright sweet acidity of the strawberries balanced the mellowed caramel/vanilla undertones of the bourbon, the slight anise hints of the wilted basil, and the dark smoky sweetness of the Kentucky sorghum. Fruity. Salty. Sweet. Sensational.

Kentucky barbecue
with a strawberry twist.

Fire up the grill
and pass the bourbon.