Friday, November 23, 2012
Scenes from a Feast and a Tex-Mex Thanksgiving Surprise
Yesterday I really sang for my supper. By the end of the day (in sum total, two days of preparation), I was Exhausted, Spent, Ready to Fall into Bed and Appreciative of my more than comfortable mattress. More importantly, however, I was pleased that the first Thanksgiving that we had ever hosted had been, by all accounts, a success. Let me stress that, although a day that celebrates both gratitude and food can hardly go wrong, there were a few moments when this outcome seemed far from unlikely: there really weren't enough chairs, the guest list, until at least an hour before the meal, was uncertain and the plates on which we ate were far from fine china. Also, there was an instant when it seemed that the turkey might have ended up on the floor, which would have pleased nobody but the dog. When all was said and done, however, it was a cozy meal with good company and good conversation.
But I truly believe that a Thanksgiving without a few surprises would hardly be a Thanksgiving at all. I had been planning the menu for weeks (since the end of October, really) and there were times when I was envisioning sweet potatoes and cauliflower cakes (remnants of my Pennsylvania roots), a Greek-style pumpkin pie (for my adopted family and a favorite of the Greek's father) and some of my more recent culinary loves: bread pudding, brussels sprouts with sage and some kind of leek dish.
There came a moment, however, when I simply had to be reasonable. After all, how many dishes can one person make in a day or two--even with six helpers? Some of our final decisions were also dictated by unknowns: from what came in the vegetable box (lots of kale!) to a surprise gift from the Greek's friend, whom we invited to join us for the meal. This friend has a been a follower of my blog for a while now (!) and, much to my delight, decided to bring me a Southern cookbook: The Homesick Texan Cookbook.
I started flipping through it on Wednesday night and, by Thursday morning, I was so smitten with its offerings that I had decided that we absolutely needed to have a creamed vegetable on the table--more specifically, the Ancho Cream Corn (like a child, I like to play with my toys as soon as I get them. Some habits are impossible to outgrow). Given our friend's love of Texas and all things with chiles and spice, it seemed only right to include some southern flavors on the menu. And with that, my carefully laid plans were overturned...
After the desserts, it was the first side dish that I made. Somehow, it seemed the simplest of all of the recipes I was planning and the one that would reheat with the least fuss.
It also ended up being one of the most popular dishes on the table. By the end of the night, there were only a few spoonfuls of corn left. Needless to say, this is the true sign of a keeper. Perhaps I'm a bit biased since I've always been a sucker for creamy things, but the combination of sweet corn kernels cradled in a mixture of cream cheese and cream and surrounded by green flecks of a chopped jalapeño (there were no Ancho peppers during my obligatory Thursday morning grocery run, so I improvised) with cayenne and a splash of lime juice was revelatory. It may sound like hyperbole, but it's the simple truth. It's important to keep in mind that I'm not always the kind of girl who accepts spice on my Thanksgiving table gracefully: last year, when the Greek and I went to a potluck and I found myself with a heaping spoonful of sweet potatoes with chipotles, I was both disappointed and unable to eat them. Call me a spice wimp, but their spice content easily exceeded the limits of my palate. But this corn recipe, considering the cream content, was, at best, only mildly spicy. Our visitor from Texas, who has cutely adopted his Texan identity and now regularly incorporates peppers into certain Greek dishes, even said it could have been spicier. I'm willing to consider this for future versions.
Although the dish that made the biggest splash, I will say that it had its fair share of stiff competition. There was the beautiful turkey that the Greek made covered in herb butter and stuffed with onions, lemons and oranges. And I made four side dishes in total: mushroom bread pudding with leeks, celery root puree with hazelnuts (really, there were more potatoes than celery root, but who's counting?), Kale salad with Parmesan and the cream corn. I ended up abandoning my plan for brussels sprouts, realizing that I had only reached my limit in the kitchen, but also that there is something to be said for not overdoing it. It really is all about quality over quantity. And, the issue of gracefully accepting one's limits aside, I was hungry.
Plus, since I had made two desserts--Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake and a repeat of the Chocolate Pecan Tart that I had fallen in love with a few weeks ago--I wanted my guests to have some room to sample both sweets.
I'm now surrounded by leftovers and thrilled that, after the output of the last few days, I don't really have to cook if I don't want to. It can be full speed ahead with both grading (yes, again! This is batch 3 of student essays) and the dissertation. Both my need and desire to work aside, I am seriously considering whipping up another batch of the cream corn--if for nothing else, then simply to have something to spice up my leftovers. It may very well be an investment...and a good way of using up the last of the cream. Thanksgiving is a holiday for emptying the fridge. This is the noblest of goals and one that I sincerely embrace.
Jalapeño Cream Corn
Adapted from The Homesick Texan Cookbook
Yields 7-8 servings
As I mentioned above, when I went to the grocery store in the morning, there were no poblanos, or, as they are known in their dried form, ancho chiles ("wide chiles"). I decided that a fresh pepper would suffice and, in order to keep things mild, I opted for a jalapeño instead of the spicier serrano. Next time, if I were to stick with the jalapeño, I might use two instead of one to add a little heat.
In general, this dish seems highly adaptable: if you like more spice, you could use a spicier chile (or two) and add more cayenne as well. As a cumin lover, I could also see myself also going for a 1/2 teaspoon, rather than for a 1/4. Where there is cream, my philosophy is that there is little room for error.
1 jalapeño pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 cups frozen corn
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces cream cheese
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
juice of half a lime
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-2 ounces Cotija cheese, finely grated, for garnish
-In a dry skillet, toast the jalapeño pepper for about 20 seconds on each side (I waited until it started to crackle softly).
-Then, fill the skillet with enough water to cover the jalapeño and bring the water to a boil.
-Turn the heat off and let the jalapeño soak for about 10-15 minutes (N.B. Although these steps were intended for a dried chile, I decided to follow them with a fresh one, too. Perhaps somewhat superfluous--if using a fresh pepper, you could skip these first three steps--I found that it really made it easier to remove the seeds from the jalapeño. I also liked the slightly toasted taste of the pepper itself).
-Drain the water from the jalapeño, then rinse and remove the stem and seeds before dicing it.
-In a large skillet (I used my trusty cast iron) on medium heat, melt the butter.
-Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes.
-Then, add the corn, cream, cream cheese, cumin, cayenne, diced jalapeño and some salt and pepper.
-Stirring occasionally, cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes or until the block of cream cheese has been incorporated into the cream mixture.
-Remove from heat and transfer to a serving bowl.
-Stir in the lime juice and then adjust the seasoning.
-Top with the grated Cotija and, if not serving immediately, wait until the corn cools and then place it in the refrigerator for safe keeping. It reheats well in the microwave.