Wednesday, November 25, 2009
When I tasted cornbread for the first time (I made it myself) I have to say that I was not particularly impressed – it was so bland! Now, I know that at that point, I considered all foods bland that were not chilli-hot. That’s an attitude endemic to (most of) us Indians because so much of our food contains chillies and/or strong spices and flavourings. If you’re used to loading vegetables with lots of masala, for instance, plain boiled green beans with just salt and pepper would definitely be termed as “bland”. It’s not just vegetarians, either – even non-veg Indians find it difficult to face plain roasted chicken (or other meat)… they usually like their meat cooked in a spicy sauce or maybe coated in a fiery masala.
I remember going with my friend Lakshmi (or KiwiGee fame, such as it is) to a restaurant in Mount Road that specialised in “western” food (I cant remember the restaurant name now, it was many years ago while I was working in the Indian Express). We had been there before and enjoyed the vegetable au gratin – or maybe it was the sheer novelty of it, vegetables in a cheesy white sauce - and decided it was time we educated another colleague and friend in the ways of international cuisine.
Poor chap, he had the most awful struggle to get it down. He was through-and-through a traditional South Indian - he wasn't even really into North Indian cuisine, and he had probably never wanted to try anything European at all. But he was a sweet uncomplaining pal, and he let himself be forced by us into having a go.
Two forkfuls into the gratin, and he turned green and said he couldn’t finish it. We, being cruel to be kind, perhaps – or maybe just determined to introduce him to “sophisticated” food - sat there, one on either side of him, insisting that he shouldn’t give up so easily. He sprinkled crushed red chillies, stirred in industrial quantities of chilli sauce, and in general did all he could to mask the blandness of the white sauce and the grilled cheese topping… but in the end, he just balked at eating any more of it. For quite a while after that I think he avoided any mention of “treats” from us…
What I didn’t realize then, I do now – that it takes a conscious effort to let your taste buds slow down and adjust to fewer spices, and enjoy the real flavour of whatever vegetable you’re eating... or even get used to the lack of chillies and the presence of unfamiliar spices and seasonings. Of course, in this I speak mostly for myself and my taste buds, which sadly did not grow up amidst authentic international cuisine and therefore were ignorant and inexperienced in many ways for the longest time.
So anyway, long story short, I did eventually learn to like vegetables that weren’t cooked to mush, steamed veg that had the most basic of seasonings - I may have mentioned this before, but fresh green beans cooked just so, eaten immediately with just a sprinkling of salt is probably one of my greatest pleasures now! - pasta that did not have crushed red chillies (at the very least) sprinkled all over it, cheese-on-toast without sliced green chillies on it… and so on. I tried to keep my mind and tastebuds open to new flavours and give new foods at least one good try before condemning them.
But this cornbread – plain cornbread without cheese or onions or anything else savoury... it literally WAS too bland and boring. It was just blah - and blah it remained despite my sternest lectures to myself to be open-minded. I didn’t bother with making cornbread again for ages, until I came across other recipes for it on the Net (this after I had started this food blog) and decided to give the whole thing another go.
Now of course I adore cornbread – as long as there’s no sweetness involved. I don’t understand or like the addition of honey or sugar. I do add onions, scallions, quick-cook vegetables like spinach, cheese (although not excessively) but, most important of all, green chillies. Yes, I'm aware that I lectured about chillies or the lack thereof, thanks - but there are SOME things which totally require heat. Cornbread, as far as I’m concerned, is one of those things. That’s how it has to be. It’s just one of those things.
These muffins make a nice snack by themselves or, more traditionally, you could serve them with chili con (or sin, in my case) carne. I didnt use fresh chillies this time - I just chopped up some super-hot-but-fruity sliced manzano chillies in vinegar that were lurking in my fridge, and used those.
Recipe for: Spinach corn muffins
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup plain flour
1 large egg
1 cup milk (I used semi-skim)
1/2 cup canned corn niblets
1/8 cup oil
1/2 cup spinach leaves, shredded
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp freshly milled black pepper
2 tsp finely chopped jalapeno peppers (I used manzano chillies)
salt to taste
1. In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt.
2. In another, smaller bowl, whisk together the oil and egg.
3. Pour in the milk and stir it in.
4. Pour the egg-milk mixture into the bowl containing the flour
and stir till just combined. Do not beat.
5. Add the corn and spinach and stir them in gently.
6. Sprinkle the ground pepper
and add the jalapenos (if using), and stir them in.
7. Fill muffin pans with the batter about 3/4 of the way to the top and bake in a 180C/350F oven for about 15 minutes. Test to see if the muffins are done; if not, give them another 5 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and serve warm.