What I Like About Being an American

What I Like About Being an AmericanI developed an interest in Indian cooking after watching the movie The Lunchbox. The main character, Ila, infused her cooking with beautiful, artistic expression in the form of spices. I enjoyed watching her hands move as she seasoned her culinary creations without the benefit of measuring spoons. Her spice box caught my attention and held my interest.

I mentioned this to a former co-worker, Bina, who is Indian. She was surprised that I enjoyed the movie, and we had a lovely discussion on Indian food. She suggested the movie The Hundred Foot Journey which further fueled my desire to learn Indian cooking. Bina invited me and three co-workers to her home for an introduction to the world of Indian cuisine.

One of the first things she explained was masala. I assumed masala was a set combination of spices used in a particular recipe. I had seen garam masala and madras masala in markets selling exotic foods. However, like curry, masala changes depending on the country and regions within said country. Bina didn’t own anything among her spices bottled and labeled masala. What she had were individual spices that she knew how to blend perfectly without measuring to create the flavor the recipe required.

Still, I didn’t quite understand masala, but I kept Bina’s comments and instructions in mind, specifically when she said she has a dessert masala, a chicken masala, and a vegetable masala. I Googled a few Indian recipes and tried them. They were good, and many of the spices Bina owns and uses were featured, but something was missing. My desire to cook Indian food was stifled by a concept I wasn’t grasping. I took a break from pursuing it and kept making recipes with which I am familiar.

One day I decided to make chili for dinner. When it came time to season the chili, jars were opened and contents sprinkled over the simmering pot until the quantity on the surface looked right and I stirred them in. A little tasting, a few more dashes of this or that, and I allowed the chili to simmer for a while. I always taste again before it’s completely cooked just to see if the flavors are balanced and add anything as needed. That’s when it hit me: the combination of spices I used was my chili masala which I return to every time I make it. I know how chili should taste to me, but I’m sure if I visited Texas or other chili-making regions of America, I’d experience other spice combinations.

I laughed to myself as my favorite seasoning combination for chicken came to mind. Then I realized I had been on the cusp of understanding the beautiful concept of masala several years ago when I attempted to swap ground ginger for fresh. The ground variety tastes savory and what I describe as classically American. Think Thanksgiving. But the recipe I was making needed the lemony zestiness of fresh ginger, that classically Asian flavor, because I was cooking a Chinese dish. Herbs de Provence is another example of a spice combination that will reflect the nuances of the person cooking with it. Just like masala, there are some spices that will always appear in the mix, but people love to alter it based on their preferences or just to add a dash of mystery.

What I Like About Being an American 2What I learned about masala, about seasoning food in general, is why I like being an American. Where else can you experience a merging of cultures that bring amazing culinary skills from their own countries so that everyone can enjoy them in one place? The great American melting pot starts in our kitchens and ends with the united flavors of America. I have returned to Indian cooking, and while I use the spices to which Bina introduced me, I suspect that my masala may not taste exactly like what she would expect. But that’s okay.

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner 2Hugh Griffin is on the cusp of a secret that will change the path of John Welles’s life forever. The unspoken shared knowledge exists between Hugh and his daughter, Garland, who John loves dearly. The once competitive pair has become quite close although for different reasons. Their relationship reaches its pinnacle in the summer of 1929 when she invites him to her home to visit her father, Hugh.

The retired Lutheran pastor welcomes his daughter and her boyfriend with abundant graciousness. Hugh is the type of man who lives a simple life with excellence. His cooking is homey, delicious, and prepared with love. For the special meal, he takes a little extra time with the otherwise ordinary dish of roasted chicken.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind for Hugh to prepare when John and Garland visited. The extra steps of spatchcocking and marinating the chicken are simple and go a long way to making the humble roast chicken juicy and tender. Besides, half the fun of spatchcocking a chicken is saying the word spatchcock. While I could describe this process to you, it’s much simpler to direct you to a website on Spatchcocking a Chicken. Once you’ve spatchcocked your chicken, proceed with the following recipe.

1 4-pound chicken, spatchcocked

Marinade:

2 c buttermilk

¼ c plus 2 T olive oil

4 cloves garlic, pressed

1 T ground peppercorns (I used quad-colored peppercorns)

1 T sea salt

2 T rosemary

1 T honey

Mix the buttermilk, ¼ c olive oil, garlic, pepper, sea salt, rosemary, and honey in a bowl. Whisk thoroughly. Pour the mixture over the spatchcocked chicken in a baking dish to be covered with plastic wrap or place the marinade and chicken in a freezer bag and seal tightly. Refrigerate overnight or up to two days.

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place on a rack so the excess can drip off. Prepare the seasonings mixture.

Seasonings Mixture:

6 T unsalted butter, cold and cut into six squaresWinner, Winner Chicken Dinner 1

1 t sea salt

¼ t oregano

¼ t thyme

¼ t paprika

¼ t ground peppercorns (Again, I used the quad-colored variety)

Combine the spices and salt. Dip one side of the cold squares of butter in the seasoning mixture and shove four beneath the skin across the breast of the chicken and one each beneath the skin over the thigh/drumstick area. Drizzle the chicken with remaining 2 T olive oil and sprinkle any remaining seasoning mixture across the skin of the chicken.

Place the chicken breast side up in a roasting pan or baking dish. Tuck the wing tips beneath the chicken. Roast for 45 minutes then reduce heat to 325° F. Baste the chicken and continue roasting until well browned and until juices run clear when chicken is pierced where leg joins thigh, about another 20 minutes.  Baste again when done roasting.

Place chicken on a carving board and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before cutting into serving pieces. Place a portion on each of four plates, and drizzle each serving with pan juices.

Enjoy!

Collie Mercer’s Cornbread

Buttermilk Cornbread Ingredients

Buttermilk Cornbread Ingredients

There are probably as many recipes for cornbread as there are people. Well, at least as many as there are people in the southern part of North America. I chose the following recipe because it was the one I had in mind when I wrote my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles.

The year is 1907. For the three oldest Welles children, Stanley, James, and Eunice, December will hold an extra surprise this year. They will receive an early Christmas presents in the form of a new baby brother. Each has an opinion on whether or not another sibling is a good thing for their family.

After the three children get a peek at their baby brother, the midwife, Collie Mercer, sends them off to do their chores. Collie is a brusque, but kind woman, who makes sure the children have food in their stomachs before heading out into the cold. She directs them to cornbread and buttermilk on the kitchen table with the promise of a real breakfast once they return from the barn.

I love this recipe because it is rich and moist. Usually, I serve it with butter and honey, but the recipe is also good with the inclusion of herbs or spices, cheese, green onions or chiles; whatever you choose to add to make it your own. It is great crumbled up in chili, soaking up the broth from brown beans, or toasted and served with apple butter.

Enjoy!

Served With Butter & Honey

Served With Butter & Honey

Collie Mercer’s Cornbread

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup cornmeal

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar (I use raw)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Cooking Spray

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8-inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, buttermilk, and butter.

Pour the buttermilk mixture into the cornmeal mixture and fold together until there are no dry spots (the batter will still be lumpy). Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish.

Bake until the top is golden brown and tester inserted into the middle of the corn bread comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cornbread from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes before serving.

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