(Continued from yesterday)
... decided to have a party a few days after Thanksgiving. The theme was leftovers remastered and redone. In spirit it suggested the high art of making something out of nothing, or at least out of nothing you felt like eating anymore.
After countless meals of turkey and trimmings, what, by the following Saturday afternoon, could make leftovers sound appetizing? Of course, Mom has always said hunger makes the best cook. Asking friends to fast a few days preceding a dinner party will allow you some leeway but this was not a hunger strike event. This was one of those dinners where artists come together for fellowship and food. One of those events that invites cleverness and invention — iron chef with a beret, as it were. I admit I gave the matter some thought.
Having prepared a huge vat of cranberry sauce, I had plenty to spare. I always wonder why we only eat the stuff at Thanksgiving. It's easy to make and tastes plenty good. And given the huge amount of pectin in the fruit, when combined with water and sugar, cranberries cook to a thick mass within in a few short minutes. Do the same with strawberries and you get a sloppy affair. But the pectin in cranberries turns the sauce into something you can dollop. It makes the ubiquitous cranberry turkey sandwich a reasonable invention if not particularly worthy of this event. No, I would have to dig deeper.
Cooking, like most art forms, can encourage a wild adventure in mixed media. Certainly there is a prudence to the everyday meal (and I strongly advocate for learning the basics) but once we learn the ropes, once we understand our medium, we may go off-chart and half-cocked into new dimensions. It is a risky world. Take it too far and we have entered into the ridiculous. We have all seen the thing — feathers on a turd so to speak; poorly cooked chicken breasts made fancy with all manner of sauces and garnish but dry just the same. No, before we can take flights of fancy we must understand the thing as it first is. What in the cranberry gives it its definition, what is it, plain and simple?
Mostly it is the tart, sweet, and near bitter essence of the berry that makes it so perfect when combined with sugar. Over the years I have reduced the recipe to just three things — water, berries, and sugar. Early creations were bothered with all sorts of additions; the worst offense being orange juice or rind. But I am fickle that way. While I love a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice I generally hate orange juice or rind in most other things. Cranberry sauce plain and true is what I had on hand. But what to pair it with? I squinted my mind's eye and palate till they landed on cornmeal. Sweet and homely, cornmeal is country-comfort food. I took out my new grain grinder. Its grinding gears fit onto the motor of my champion juicer and can turn whole grains to flour in a loud minute. You do not use this tool when guests are sleeping unless you want them to leave. So know this... if I have made you pancakes for breakfast, you'd better start packing.
My friend had given me dried corn kernels earlier in the year. I put them in the grain hopper and ground them fine and then coarser. The flour came out warm and yellow and smelled sunny sweet. Then came the walnuts. They came from Jossy Farms, up Hwy. 26. I go there every year — in July for my Gravenstein apples, in August for my Veteran peaches and in November for my walnuts. This year, like most others, we bought 50 pounds of cracked walnuts which the husband and I go through to shell and freeze for the year's supply. A walnut still young in the year is hauntingly sweet. Toasted it is more than lovely. Yes, a cornmeal and toasted walnut crust filled with a goat cheese and cranberry filling with just the smallest amount of sage. It seems I was on to something... (to be continued)