Monday, April 30, 2012

Corn Meal Mush

Recently Addie Broyles, food writer for the Austin American-Statesman, did a blog post for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance (AFBA) to inspire members to submit recipes to the first AFBA community cookbook. She used a Texas-Czech community cookbook from a neighbor as an example  - Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History - and wrote in her post “Community cookbooks like this one capture so many things about a society, including aspirational and traditional dishes that people might not actually cook any more but that are important to understanding how we came to eat the way we do now.” Addie’s post is a nice tribute to the book and, what I’m sure was, very hard work that went into creating it.

The post prompted me to pull out my copy of the book and look through it for recipes to test, including what I think is a perfect representation of Addie’s quote… corn meal mush. I assume this dish was made mostly by rural Texas Czechs and those of slim means (and most likely rural people of any ethnicity since cornmeal was a staple food.) In the book Krasna Amerika, Clinton Machann and James Mendl wrote “Of course, during times of great hardship such as the first years of settlement and, especially, during the Civil War years, the Texas Czechs – like everyone else – ate whatever was available, perhaps little other than corn bread.” (pg. 141)

In fact when I asked my mother about whether she remembers my grandmother making corn meal mush, she said “Oh, yes… for the dogs.” She remembers coming home from school and always being able to tell when her mother was making it because the house smelled so good… like bacon fat and little bits of leftover meat. “Can I have some?” she would ask and get “Sure, but I’m making it for the DOGS,” my grandmother would reply. Though my grandmother did grow up on farms, my mother grew up in a town (Hallettsville.) For humans, my grandmother would make cornbread.

I don’t remember my mother making anything with cornmeal except cornbread. Of course, when I was an adult and started cooking on my own, I discovered that fancy Italian dish called polenta. Coming full circle, the corn meal mush dish in the Czech Reflections cookbook is nothing more than corn meal, water and salt brought to a boil and then cooled to firm it, sliced and pan fried.

I found a reference to corn meal mush in the great book We’re Czechs by sociologist Robert L. Skrabanek (a native of Snook, Texas) written in 1988. In a chapter talking about farm work in the 1920s and 30s, Mr. Skrabanek described the many ways his family used the corn they grew, from burning the cobs in the wood heater to mulching the stalks. He wrote “We also carried shelled corn in a sack to the gin, where it was ground into cornmeal. We used lots of cornmeal, especially for making cornbread, and mama made a real fine corn mush.” (pg. 61) He doesn’t explain what it was exactly, how it was made, what the ingredients were, what it was eaten with or when… all things I would love to know. I wonder if the mush recipe in Czech Reflections is anything similar.

I have not found any reference to corn or cornmeal yet in the little information I have in English about 19th century foodways in the lands that make up present day Czech Republic. In fact, in her book To Reap a Bountiful Harvest: Czech Immigration Beyond the Mississippi, 1850-1990, Stepanka Korytova-Magstadt writes flat out that Texas Czechs "had no experience growing either cotton or corn." (pg. 100) That tells me they had no experience eating it either. I haven't found any other recipes for corn meal mush in the Texas Czech cookbooks I have. Maybe that's because it was such an everyday dish that no one else bothered to put it in a community cookbook? It does make me wonder how Czechs figured out what to do with cornmeal... did they use it like buckwheat and other grains they were used to eating back home, making porridge with it? Did they learn from German neighbors? These questions keep me up at night. 

Slices of corn meal mush dredged in flour before frying.
Below is the recipe for corn meal mush straight from the community cookbook. My practical advice…. the recipe calls for way too much water. Though the mush did firm up in the refrigerator overnight, it was the texture of soft tofu. It did hold together while frying (very gingerly turning it), but took a long time to brown because all the water in it basically had to evaporate first. Also, I fried the slices in olive oil… I’m sure frying it in a pan fresh with bacon grease would make it that much yummier. 

And though the recipe intimates that it should be eaten for breakfast (with scrambled eggs, bacon and syrup!!), I made it for dinner with another recipe I tested from the book… spinach gravy. In the photo, you’ll see slices of the corn meal mush topped with the spinach gravy. More on “gravies” in another post, but I’ve included the recipe for that, too.

Corn meal mush topped with spinach gravy.
This made a great vegetarian supper (my 3 year old wouldn't eat the spinach, but ate the fried mush with ketchup!!) or be delicious served with roast chicken. 

Corn Meal Mush
Provided courtesy McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society and Westfest
From the cookbook Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History
Published by The McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, 1994

Mix 1 cup cold water with 1 cup corn meal. Stir in 3 cups boiling water, 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring constantly until mixture boils. Pack corn meal mush into greased bread pan and cover. Chill until firm. Slice ½ inch thick. Brown on each side in skillet. (For crispness, first dip slices in flour.) Serve hot with syrup or jelly, to accompany bacon, ham, sausage, etc.

Spinach Gravy
Mrs. Stasie Jaska Janek
From the cookbook Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History
Published by The McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, 1994

3 cups spinach
3 cups water from [cooking] spinach
½ cup flour
6 tablespoons shortening or butter
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 egg
½ clove garlic

Cook spinach in water. [Drain and chop fine.] Brown flour in shortening. Add spinach water and chopped spinach to browned flour. Add salt and pepper [and garlic] to taste. Beat egg and add to mixture, stirring until egg in cooked.

My practical advice… after browning the flour in the butter, add the cooking water by itself first. You want to mix the roux and the water together smoothly, using a whisk if you need to, to make sure there are no lumps before adding the chopped spinach. This dish is almost identical to what I grew up eating, but called "creamed spinach" because my grandmother added milk to hers instead of water. However it was much thicker and served as a side dish, not a "gravy."

Readers - I'd love comments about corn meal mush if you have a memory of it, served as above or in some other way. I'd also like to know if you are familiar with the spinach gravy. Why is it called gravy? What was it served over? Boiled potatoes? Meat? Toasted bread? Fried eggs? 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Potato Soup (Bramborova Polevka)

Potato soup doesn’t sound very Spring-like, but that’s my latest recipe test. A couple of factors bear down heavily on how often I test recipes and what I try… 1) feeding my family (with two boys) and 2) health concerns. If I feel like I’ve had a week where I didn’t eat enough salads and vegetables, then it’s hard for me to justify to myself testing dishes heavy with meat, cream, butter. And if my 13-year-old is with me for the week, my menu becomes even more limited because he’s such a picky eater.

Finished soup in the pot... chunks of potatoes swimming in cream
with flecks of marjoram and thyme.
But he actually loves potato soup, so a weeknight dinner became an opportunity to test a recipe, too. I have at least a dozen recipes in community and other Texas cookbooks for variations of this creamy soup, but I ended up trying the one below because I had (or could fudge) all the ingredients on hand. How Czech is it? I don’t know, but Janak is certainly a Czech last name (the recipe contributor), so I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Here it is copied straight out of the book.

Potato-Buttermilk Soup
by Mary Jo Janak
from Tempting Recipes, collected by Court Sacred Heart #797, Catholic Daughters of America, Hallettsville, TX, 2005 (4th Edition)

1 ½ pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
2 cups chicken broth
6 slices bacon, diced
1 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon flour
5 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon thyme
salt and pepper

Cook potatoes in broth until tender. Remove from heat; do not drain. Cook bacon until crisp. Drain. Saute onion in bacon grease until golden. Melt butter in saucepan. Add flour and stir 2 minutes. Slowly stir in buttermilk. Cook until mixture thickens. Add onions, potatoes and liquid and thyme. Heat to near boil. Salt and pepper and garnish with bacon. Serves 6.*

There's almost nothing on earth that smells more
delicious than onions sauteing in bacon fat.
Other recipes I’ve found contain everything from carrots and celery to a can of cream of mushroom soup. The classic Czech cookbook for Americans, The Czechoslovak Cookbook by Joza Brizova, first published in 1965, has no potato soup recipe. Neither does the book Best Czech Recipes by Harold Safelner, 2003. I did find one in a little book called The Littlest Czech Cookbook by Milada Williams, 2003. It’s flavored very differently using marjoram, garlic, caraway seeds, mushrooms and a mélange of vegetables - carrots, cabbage, celery and kohlrabi. These are the flavors that I think of as particular to Czech cuisine. In my hunt for Texas potato soup recipes that reflect a Czech origin, perhaps those are all the 'buzzwords’ that I should be looking for.

I've made potato soup my entire adult life almost exclusively from a recipe I got in 8th grade Home Economics in 1980, because I don't have any "family" recipes for potato soup.  But, I know the potato was an important foodstuff in what is now the Czech Republic when the majority of people (including my foremothers) immigrated. In fact, in Moravia in the 19th century, the potato was crucial to survival. There was a saying in Moravia - "potatoes and cabbage; that's all our being." The poor, especially in the more mountainous regions, heavily relied upon potatoes for day to day meals because they were relatively easy to grow. Cooks made things like dumplings, pancakes, bread and pastry dough, and, of course, soup.

After testing the unadulterated recipe above, I whirred my son's up in the blender (he doesn't like chunks of veggies.) We all garnished additionally with cheddar cheese and diced scallions like our bowls contained a liquified baked potato. The soup was actually delicious... very rich (bacon fat, butter and cream!!) with a strong, fresh herb taste. I'll be eating salads for the next couple of days to tip the nutritional scales in my favor for this week.

Potatoes cut into 1/2" chunks simmering in chicken broth
to which the thyme and marjoram were added. 
* Practical notes about the recipe - I used russet baking potatoes, which I would not use again... no flavor. I used Central Market Organics low sodium chicken broth. The recipe doesn't specify fresh or dried thyme. I used thyme and marjoram that had been fresh a few days ago from Monument Café’s garden but was now dried. I used Applegate Farms uncured bacon. 6 slices rendered 1/4 cup of bacon fat which was a disgusting amount to put in a pot of soup, so I drained all but 1 tablespoon off to saute the onions. The recipe doesn't specify how much butter to stir the flour into... I used 2 tablespoons. I didn't have buttermilk, but did have a combination of 1/2 and 1/2 and whipping cream to which I added a teaspoon of lemon juice for every cup of liquid. I also added a teaspoon of salt after all the ingredients were combined and simmering together.

"The Wallachian Potato," article by Kevin Hannan, KJT News, March 1988.
"Wallachia Kitchen," essay by Milena Habustova, Roznov, Moravia, Czech Republic, date unknown.