Before anyone jumps to any rash conclusions, I’d just like to preemptively announce that, in terms of food, I’m like Chipper Jones–a great switch hitter, with power from both sides of the plate.

Okay, for those of y’all who are not baseball fans, I probably should offer a more comprehensive explanation.  I grew up alternating between farm and city, and when I was on a farm, I was exposed at a very young age to the “potential” (or from my perspective: “self-evident reality”) of the humane treatment of livestock in small scale agriculture.  Between the farm that we lived on and the farm that my father was raised on, we raised shorthorn beef cattle and excellent chickens (for both eggs and meat), as well as a couple goats (as pets and as weed control).  As a result, I am most definitely an appreciator of all products animal.

However, after spending a few weeks in Indonesia (and spending a lot more time with a seriously indefatigable vegetarian), I really began to appreciate the methods and ingredients of serious vegetarian cuisine.  This has resulted in a kitchen where we cook with far more tempeh than bacon, and more soymilk (always unsweetened!) than whole milk: though I try to keep both on hand. In short, I love cooking both meat and vegetarian food, and I see no reason why one must pick one or the other.

Why have both soymilk and cow’s milk, you ask?  Its simple: each milk has its pros and cons depending on the situation.  Regular milk is much better for baking, in coffee (most of the time), and for use in egg-based dishes.  However, there’s nothing better with oatmeal (in my opinion) than the nutty richness that is soymilk.

But I digress.  This post is about breakfast, and its about time I started writing about it, because it was ungodly delicious!  Like most of my breakfasts, this one was spontaneous.  I woke up with two thoughts in my head: fried eggs and cornbread.  A good, simple combination methinks…but after a half-cup of coffee, I got ambitious.

My first big idea came quickly: poached eggs.  I had a pretty good aged cheddar on hand, and was running low on butter–butter than I would need for “skillet-ing” (*see note) the cornbread .  I could survive without the butter by poaching the eggs, and the cheese would make a good topping paired with the cornbread.

By this time I was moving in a more southern direction.  I had thrown a couple tablespoons of Spice House chili powder (if you’ve ever had Spice House spices, you’ll understand why I bothered to mention the brand!) into the cornbread batter, as well as a bit of cayenne and dried parsley.  And it was then that I had a second idea: hollandaise.

I’ve never made a hollandaise before and despite my now cup and a half of coffee I wasn’t ready to go down that path this early in the morning.  I had seen an episode of The French Chef with Julia Child where she made one from scratch, and all that I can remember is a lot of butter, egg yolks and cream.  Regardless, I was out of butter–having used the last of it to prep the skillet for cornbread–and all I had on hand was soymilk: not good for this purpose.  So that was a dead end.  Back at square one, I saw a can of pintos in the cabinet, and thought: “this could work.” I already had a southern theme going on, so I could just mince up some shallots and garlic, and saute them with the beans and a few spices; that could make a nice pinto bean topping for the eggs.

So, I’m poaching the eggs (farmers market: the yolks are almost orange they’re so good!), the cornbread is just starting to brown in the oven, and the beans are tasting good, but they’re just beans: uninspiring, and not at all saucy (I was still pining for a hollandaise at this point).  And then I remembered an amazing fact:  I own an immersion blender!

Let me repeat that: I own an immersion blender!

Yes! I grabbed the blender, added a touch of water to the beans, and blended the pintos right in the saucepan until they were a rich, creamy sauce.  Let’s call it a vegan pinto hollandaise.  Brilliant!  So I cut the cornbread into wedges, split it, put the pieces crust-side down, added a layer of the cheese, two poached eggs, and literally covered the whole thing with the pinto-hollandaise.  My god, was it tasty!  My only regret is that I didn’t take a picture.

If this sounds a bit dramatic, believe me it was!  So if you’ve got a blender, I’d recommend making this yourself, as soon as possible.  And when you’re baking cornbread, the simpler the recipe the better: so long as cornmeal makes up at least half of the ingredients.  This is not the time or the place for cakey cornbread!

Finally, be sure to get your timing down right.  Poached eggs can really get overdone quickly, and cornbread must be served immediately.  It’ll start to loose moisture as soon as it leaves the oven.  So get some boiling water ready for the eggs, but don’t poach them until just before the cornbread is done!

*Note: “Skillet-ing” is a phrase that I use to describe the process of prepping your cast-iron skillet for baking proper cornbread, and yes you need a well seasoned cast-iron skillet.  First of all, your skillet should be hot.  Put it in the oven for a couple minutes.  You don’t want it blazing hot.  Just hot enough for a tablespoon or so of butter to immediately start to melt and sizzle (but not brown).

See where I’m going with this?  Yeah, I thought so.  Pull the skillet out of the oven and drop a tablespoon of butter or so (maybe a little less) into the center.  And put the skillet back in the oven to let the butter melt.  Then pour the cornbread batter into the skillet and throw it into the oven.  Pouring it into an already heated skillet with the melted butter makes all the difference, I promise!

Advertisements

Wikipedia)

Buckwheat, in its 19th Century botanical color plate form. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Backstory:

(scroll to bottom for recipe)

One of the more significant limitations Elena and I face in terms of cooking hinges on an otherwise benign, if enigmatic staple: buckwheat.  As a flour it is most commonly consumed – I would guess – in the form of soba noodles, a Japanese pasta made from buckwheat flour.  However, it’s more commonly known as “kasha” the roasted version of buckwheat groats used heavily in Eastern European Jewish cooking.  Small, chewy, and distinctive, these little groats (as they are technically not “grains” per se, but hulled archenes) are fairly healthy, and loaded with obscure minerals like Manganese, Copper, Phosphorous, and Zinc.  I’ve always been intrigued by the shape–like two pyramids fused at their respective bases.

Kasha varnishkes, that ubiquitous staple of Eastern European Jewish Cuisine, employs buckwheat as its primary ingredient.  Coated with egg, pan-fried, and paired with onions, bowtie noodles, mushrooms, and sour cream, kasha varnishkes is a spectacularly simple, and surprisingly delicious dish.  I love it; and Elena absolutely reviles it.  (For the record, one of my brothers has the same reaction to Buckwheat groats, so maybe its one of those love-hate foods like cauliflower or cilantro.)

So much for deep-seeded religious and cultural traditions.  Elena comes from Ashkenazi stock, and I have predominantly German Catholic roots, so common sense would lead one to surmise the opposite.  Nevertheless, I’m the one with the kasha-fixation.  The months following this discovery were spattered with intermittent efforts on my part to find a new method for cooking buckwheat groats that Elena would like.  I tried a few different versions of kasha varnishkes; I even tried an vaguely Italian variation with vermicelli, fall vegetables, and leeks (recipe available here, third from the top).  Nothing seemed to work–until Sunday.

The Experience:

My father was always the breakfast cook growing up.  Alongside the familiar feeling of the cold metal chains of playground swings and the strong scent of dry straw bales wafting out of flung-open barn doors, few associations are as strong and childlike for me as my father, in his well-worn grey robe, making breakfast.  One of his specialties was buckwheat pancakes.  I always remembered their delicious and distinctive nutty flavors, but I hadn’t attempted to make them on my own before this weekend.

I spotted a baker at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday that was selling fresh milled flour and cornmeal.  I bought cornmeal (which I had been out of for some time), buckwheat flour, and a pumpkin “whoopie pie”.  The whoopie pie,  as delicious as it sounds, was consumed that afternoon with a bottle of Dogfish Head’s Burton Baton over a half-game of scrabble.  The buckwheat, by contrast, sat peacefully on the shelf until Sunday morning.

On Sunday morning, I slayed two demons that had been nagging at me for some time: buckwheat flour and yeast.  Anyone who’s a from-scratch pancake maker–and this should be everyone, quite frankly–knows that there are two methods of making pancake batter.  One, the more simple and expedient method, calls for baking powder.  Satisfyingly fast, these flapjacks are ready to go instantly; just mix the liquids into the solids (or vice versa), and you’re ready to go.  However, baking powder comes with a slight aftertaste, and is a chemical product.  So if you’re looking for the all-natural, “real deal” pancake, baking powder probably isn’t for you.

The second method uses yeast as a leavening agent.  This method involves letting the batter sit for an hour, but honestly after having tried this method I can assure you that it’s well worth the wait.  When you’re done you end up with a light, fluffy batter and the cooked pancakes have an consistency and lightness and depth of flavor that will amaze you!  The buckwheat flour, too, did not disappoint.  When used to make pancakes, the flour gives the batter a blue-grey color, with beautiful dark specks: almost like a variation on a robin’s egg.  The flour must have been freshly milled as the flavors were intense and delicate.  They hardly needed maple syrup; just a little butter would have done the trick.

And the best news of all: Elena liked them! Mission Accomplished!

Buckwheat Pancakes.  Forgive the product placement; it was unintentional.

Buckwheat Pancakes. Forgive the product placement; it was unintentional.

The Recipe:

Adapted, slightly, from an out of print and slightly odd 1970’s version of the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook:

2 cups lukewarm water

1 tablespoon dry active yeast

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 cups buckwheat flour

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon sea salt

Mix yeast and brown sugar into warm water in a large mixing bowl and stir until dissolved.  Add the milk to the yeast mixture, and then the flours and salt (sifted together if you’re feeling ambitious). Beat this mixture by hand until smooth.

Cover and set aside in a warm place to rise for about an hour. The mixture should be light and fluffy at this point.  Stir well and bake on a lightly oiled medium-hot griddle (or cast iron frying pan, if you’ve got one), until browned on both sides.

This is a pretty big recipe, so if you’re cooking breakfast for two, I’d recommend halving the recipe.

Note: in my experience, the first pancake always ends up less than spectacular; its always too oily, or you’re griddle was too hot and it burned a bit.  Don’t worry about it, just treat the first pancake as calibration.  Adjust your temperature and move on to the next one.  Also, you shouldn’t need to oil the griddle/pan after the first pancake.