Posts Tagged With: mexican food

County Corn Expert

[The 20th Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance is coming soon.  To prepare for that auspicious weekend, I’m sharing my throwback recollections from last year’s Symposium, the theme of which was “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Syrupy Problem.”  Before I got into the details of the meeting, I was compelled to establish my authority…]

I am now my county’s foremost expert on corn. I know what you may be thinking: “I thought he was a Pharmacist, not a Farm…Assist.” Perhaps if you are in my immediate family or a close friend, you are recalling something I said that might have been “corny”- but hilarious nonetheless. (See play on words in previous sentence.) Perhaps you are a county extension agent whose specialty is corn, and you might be wondering if I have a degree in Zea Mays farming methods that I’ve never mentioned before. As it happens, I do not have such a degree, but I have recently been in four days of meetings about corn, and in between discussions have eaten ten corn-based meals. I think that ought to do it, don’t you? You do realize how many people on the world-wide interweb claim to be experts with much less experience than that? They are legion.
But before I ruminate aloud on all that new knowledge, I’m going to offer a prelude, with some of my favorite corn memories that have prepared me for this season of life.
My most vivid memory is the summer that I worked in the research cornfields of Mississippi State University’s North Farm. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked as hard as I did that summer. And I’m certain I was in the best physical shape of my life by the time it was over. We hoed corn. We sprayed stuff on corn. We hoed corn again. We cross-pollinated corn. And … that’s where my corn career ended. Apparently I was allergic to corn pollen. And when you start shaking the stalks to facilitate the separation of the pollen from the thingamawhich that produces the pollen (remember I wasn’t an expert then), it will rain down on your head and turn someone like me into a giant, sneezing, itchy, red minefield of whelps. But it was fun while it lasted, and I had a rockin’ tan.
Growing up, Mama made two kinds of cornbread: regular and Kentucky. Both were baked in a cast iron skillet, as the good Lord intended, but the recipes were different. Regular cornbread was pretty much made of corn meal, and I preferred that version for the times I slathered it with butter prior to covering it with Blackburn’s syrup for dessert. Kentucky cornbread had a can of actual corn mixed in it, and it was my favorite for eating alongside beans and greens and such. In college I moved into an apartment and found a new recipe for Kentucky cornbread left in a drawer by a former resident. This one had chopped onions and sour cream added to it, and was kind of an antithesis to “regular cornbread” – in other words, it was very moist. It’s still my favorite one to make, so shout-out to that mystery former apartment dweller.

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How can I bake thee, cornbread? Let me count the ways.

A thesis on corn in my family wouldn’t be complete without another shout-out to Dawn, Hair Stylist to the Stars, who introduced us to her Corn Casserole. You might call it corn pudding, the staple dish of church potlucks, and that’s okay – they are at least close cousins. Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, butter, sour cream, whole kernel corn and cream corn. Mix and bake. It’s easy, and it’s delicious. I have tried add-ons like cheese and Tony Chachere’s, but they don’t improve it. I’m not even sure bacon would make it better, and that’s near blasphemy.
Corn salad, the picnic dish made properly with white shoepeg corn, is also a family favorite, though I was probably a grown-up before I really began to crave it. We don’t have an heirloom recipe for this one, however – we just get it from The Little Dooey. Why mess up a good thing?
Here’s another question. Why don’t we see more corn in Mexican restaurants? That is, besides the ground up version that morphs into tortillas, tamales, or baskets of chips. I seriously dig what is often simply described as Mexican street corn. I don’t know how authentic the term is, as the only Mexican street I’ve ever walked down was in Cozumel on a cruise excursion, and I don’t think that counts. But I know it’s awesome. Grilled corn, slathered in a mix of mayo and sour cream, rolled in crumbled Cotija cheese, and sprinkled with chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime. Delicioso. Let’s encourage our local restaurateur amigos to andale and arriba that onto their menus, okay? (My apologies to actual Spanish speakers. I’m a corn expert, not a linguist. My Spanish tutor was Speedy Gonzales.)
Long time readers may remember the corn-centric birthday I had a few years ago. I decided to make my own birthday cake and ice cream, and both were corn-flavored. The cake was sweet, but had a high percentage of corn meal in the recipe, giving it a texture somewhere between cornbread and standard cake. What made this particular cake even more unique was it’s color. I had a little bit of blue cornmeal in the pantry at the time, which I mixed in with the yellow cornmeal the recipe called for. You know what blue and yellow make, right? Yes, they make a green cake. Mold green, to be precise. Tasted great. Looked spoiled. Lesson learned. And the corn ice cream – well, it was certainly successful in the sense that it tasted like corn ice cream. I worked hard making that custard, and it was a smooth, rich result. But a couple of bowls and my curiosity was satisfied.

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Can I get you another bowl of corn?

A man corn cob walks into a hipster coffee shop, sits next to a lady corn cob and says, “Come ear often?”
Yep, I’m an expert.

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Taco Tuesday

Taco Tuesday. It just has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? According to Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA, How Mexican Food Conquered America, a number of restaurants claim the original idea – one even copyrighted the term. No matter who thought of it first, I think it’s a great idea. And not long ago I had an inadvertent (but delicious) Taco Tuesday I won’t soon forget.

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A book you should read

The scene was Jackson, the capital of our fine state. For the purposes of my day job, which is medical in nature, I found myself spending the day at the Medical Mall. Until 24 hours before my trip, I didn’t even know there was a Medical Mall. For others unfamiliar, it’s an old shopping mall, retrofitted with clinics, pharmacies, health education and the like. Not necessarily the sort of place you’d think would harbor a great lunch spot. But pharmacists gotta’ eat, right?
When lunchtime came, my colleague gave me a quick tour of what served as an extended food court: Subway of course, because the next closest Subway must have been at least a half mile away. (I’m convinced they have the same expansion plan as Dollar General.) Chick-Fil-A in miniature (not a full-size restaurant – more like a stall with sack lunches.) And Picadilly Cafeteria, an apparent holdover from mall days, I’m betting. There were a few other places scattered about, but the one that caught my attention was a little kiosk halfway between Subway and Picadilly.
The sign said, “Sameerah’s Healthy Kiosk.” A bigger sign listed five or six varieties of grits: grits with bacon, grits with ham, grits with sausage, etc. The idea of grits for lunch brought me back, but when I looked at the menu – abbreviated but intriguing – it was a taco that sealed the deal.
It’s always tough to make a decision when:
1)I’m at a new place,
2)so many things look good,
3)I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to go back.
The struggle is real. Thankfully, there was another customer waiting for his order that was happy to help. I didn’t get his name, but I did get that he worked in the building. I also got that he had eaten with Ms. Sameerah every day, Monday through Friday, since something like January. He also revealed that she made everything fresh daily – if she ran out, she ran out. She even cut her veggies right there in front of us. I watched her shave slices of carrot right into our wraps. In the end, though, he wasn’t as much help as I had hoped: he had tried everything on the menu, and it was all good. I was right back where I started.
I finally settled on the black bean taco – it was a healthy kiosk, after all. She cut the veggies fresh, after all. Plus it was after 2 o’clock and I knew I’d be eating dinner in a few hours, so something lighter seemed the right thing to do. She started with one of her homemade wraps. I didn’t get details on how she made it, but I could see that it was special – chances are it was a secret, anyway. The next layer was something she called Sameerah Sauce – no secrets divulged on that one, either. Next she added black beans heated on the electric griddle, then fresh-cut carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and more. Another squirt of Sameerah Sauce and it was done. Simple and delicious. On the side were grilled veggies unlike any I’ve ever had. Thin-sliced cabbage, green pepper, tomato, onion, and zucchini – heated up on the griddle with a blend of herbs that I assumed she wouldn’t share. (And she wouldn’t share.) I’ll just have to experiment and figure it out, because those veggies were ten times better than any side of fries. And healthy to boot.

Sameerah's Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Sameerah’s Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Lunch was a lucky surprise, but dinner had already been decided. I left the Mall after work and went a few minutes down the road to Fondren for my first visit to the Pig & Pint. As I approached the entrance, I was enthusiastically welcomed by one of the P&P servers. I told him I’d never been there before and requested his recommendation. Ribs were his first thought – apparently they’d won an award for being the best in Jackson. Next on his list was the taco sampler. Now he had my attention.
I think it’s ironic that a dish most old-school pit masters would never have offered in a roadside barbecue joint is now de rigueur in the newer places. And despite the purist streak in me, I dig ‘em. But I did take the time to peruse the menu. I had already heard about the pork belly corn dog. I was intrigued by the pimento cheese served with house made pork rinds. Boudin burger? Ordinarily I would have gone for it (I’m odd like that) or at least persuaded someone with me to order something different. That allows me to pretend to be a real food critic and try as many dishes as possible. But alas, I was alone and not quite starving, so I went with my gut and got the tacos.

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

The trio included one each with pulled chicken, pulled pork, and brisket. All had pico de gallo and mango jicama slaw, the slaw another rendition you are unlikely to find at a typical joint – yet it fit right in at the Pig and Pint. I think the brisket was my fave, but I didn’t leave a crumb from any of them. And despite my state of satiation, I geared up for the ride home with a decadent chunk of Parker House Bread Pudding, infused with cranberry jelly and covered in white chocolate sauce.

Decadence in a paper tray

Decadence in a paper tray

A long workday transformed into an unforeseen Taco Tuesday. That’s the kind of day I like.

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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, Part One: Deep Thoughts and Red Hots

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Each autumn for the past five years I have spent a glorious weekend in Oxford, and it had nothing to do with football.  Attending the annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium has become one of my favorite weekends of the year.  I save both vacation time and funds to make sure The Wife and I can go.  Lots of others do, too, which is why the tickets sold out in three minutes last year.  (Shake that off, Taylor Swift.)
I am always amazed by the chefs that cook and the speakers that illumine, and every year it seems I get a better picture of how food permeates everything we do.  Each symposium has a theme such as The Global South, Women at Work, The Cultivated South, and of course: Barbecue.  Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we were asked the question, “Who is welcome at the Welcome Table?”  Once again I came away not just full of the best efforts of some of the South’s star chefs, but also with an appreciation of food’s interplay with history.
When I think of civil rights, the names that come to my mind right away are Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, James Meredith, and Rosa Parks; all justifiably so.  But what about Anne Moody and Joan Trumpauer?  The Royal Seven or the Greensboro Four?  These and many more played a major role in bringing the Civil Rights Act to fruition, and all worked through the avenue of food.  Do a little digging on these names and you will find that each of them were involved in sit-ins at segregated restaurants, including the Woolworth’s lunch counter in our own Jackson.  Food mattered.
The complete story of how and why restaurants and food played into the civil rights timeline is a fascinating and important one, perhaps better told by others who have done more research than attendance at a weekend symposium.   But before I get to the meals, I will share one thing I learned: the plate of civil rights is filled with more than just two dishes, more than just two colors of food, so to speak.  In some areas we (in American society) have moved away from the divided plate where foods don’t touch each other, but in others there is still room to learn and to grow.  And food still matters.
Our first meal of the weekend was one I was greatly looking forward to.  Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is somewhat unique. Since opening in 1982, it has only had two chefs.  Bill Neal was the first, and among other accomplishments was the one responsible for establishing it as the birthplace of shrimp and grits.  I, for one, am very thankful for shrimp and grits.  When that Bill passed away in 1991, he was succeeded by another, Chef Bill Smith, who continues to carry on the legacy of elevating traditional Southern dishes and local ingredients.
I first met Bill Smith at the SFA symposium in 2010.  At every meal there are large tables set, and no place cards that tell you where to sit.  I didn’t know a soul when I got there, so I met new people every time we ate, and Bill happened to be at one of those tables.  At the time, I didn’t know what Crook’s Corner was, and certainly didn’t know that he was a chef.  All I knew was that he was on the SFA board of directors, that he could often be spotted wearing a baseball cap, and that he was a genuinely likable guy.
Since then I have seen him at four subsequent meetings, gotten to know him just a little bit better, and have put Crook’s Corner in the upper echelons of my bucket list.  But since I rarely get to Chapel Hill, I was pretty excited that Bill and his crew would be feeding us that first night.
The cooks that share the kitchen at Crook’s Corner are from Mexico, and have become an important part of Bill’s life as well as the cuisine that emerges from his kitchen.  We were privileged to share in what was called a Nuevo North Carolina Supper, a family meal served family style.
The first dish was Coctel de Camaron, which translates to Shrimp Cocktail, but was really more like shrimp salsa.  Imagine a thick tomato-based salsa, plenty with peeled shrimp and chunks of avocado, sprinkled with cilantro, and (I’m pretty sure) spiked with something citrusy.  I wouldn’t let the nice lady take it away until I’d eaten seconds.  Maybe thirds.

Next on the table were country ham and chile tamales.  When I read this on the menu, I expected chunks of ham in the masa, but alas, they were not there.  Upon further study of the menu I learned that it was broth from drippings of country ham baked in Coca-Cola that had moistened the masa.  Lots of cultures mingling here, and the result was a tasty tamale.
The main course was Pork Shanks Braised with Hominy and Corn.  There was all sorts of good stuff floating around in this bowl, after the shanks had been braised with tomatillos for several hours.  Following that was a simple mango salad – chunks of mango, lime juice and lots of cayenne pepper.  To cool the tongue we got a tub of orange juice sorbet studded with Red Hots.  Yes, that’s Red Hots, the candy.  In sorbet.  I dipped my share and more out of that tub, and I could use a bowlful right now if you don’t mind.

Four Corners of Yum

Four Corners of Yum

I saw Bill the next day and told him the meal was not just fabulous food – it was also fun.  He replied that he was glad to hear it and added: “I’m tired of serious dinners.”  If non-serious dinners mean eating food like that again, I’m with him.

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