Friday, October 7, 2016

"Fork in the Road" - Michigan Culinary Adventures From the Emmy Winning PBS Series" - Michigan Double Sweet Corn Chowder

Date I made this recipe:  October 5, 2016

Fork in the Road – Michigan Culinary Adventures from the Emmy Winning PBS Series [Fork in the Road] with Eric Villegas
Published by Huron River Press (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
ISBN: 13: 978-1-932399-17-2; © 2007
Purchased at Canterbury Book Store in Escanaba, Michigan on a trip back to my home state
Recipe:  Michigan Double Sweet Corn Chowder- p. 98; Roasted Garlic Puree – p. 88

Last week, I returned to my home state, Michigan, to have an early birthday celebration with my Aunt Mary, who will be 95 years old next week. My birthday is the day before hers and we have always been thick as thieves so it was great to see her to "pre"-celebrate.  She rode shotgun with me on trips to into town as well as one longer one to Traverse City to deal with a rental car issue.  Make that issues, plural, but that's another story for another day.

And while we were traversing Traverse City (and greater Traverse City), we stopped to eat and had a nice chat with our server who said that he was originally from "The Soo," which translated means "Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan" (or, but not in this case, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada). 

The Michigan "Soo" is located in the Upper Peninsula.  Although Aunt Mary has lived "downstate" (i.e. the lower peninsula) for many years, she was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula as was I.  We informed our server of this cosmic connection, and it is cosmic in that it a rare thing to find three people hanging out "downstate" who can all lay claim to having Upper Peninsula roots.  So that was fun.

Anyway, I was hoping to have time to scrounge around for a Michigan cookbook to commemorate this trip, but I did not and so I pulled what I think is the last of my Michigan cookbooks off the shelf and set to work. 

This cookbook is based on the PBS show, Fork in the Road, and is all about Michigan.  The author, who is also the show's host, showcases Michigan foods by regions and then makes recipes using these foods.

As a native to the state, I am very familiar with some of these "native" incredible edibles such as whitefish, cherries and blueberries.  Naturally, the author suggests using "Michigan" ingredients for many of these dishes but that was pretty impossible.  For one thing, I am not hauling whitefish on a plane with me (plus, you'll mostly find it in Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula) and it was way too late for blueberries and cherries.  You should know that the area I was in, Traverse City, hosts the National Cherry Festival every July (1st part) and you cannot turn around in that town without spotting a cherry "whatnot," regardless of whether or not the festival is in full swing. In fact, I am quite enjoying some hot coffee in my "Traverse City – Cherry Capital of the World" mug as we speak! 

The book is broken out into recipes by region:  "Freshwater;" "The Fruit Belt;" "Middle of the Mitt" (i.e. the lower peninsula); "The Thumb" (the area along Lake Huron's lakeshore, home to such cities as Port Sanilac and Port Huron (I've been to both); "The U.P." (my home turf), and then "Great Lakes Pantry," which features side dishes, spices, vinaigrettes, and other items used in cooking.  That said, I'm not sure these are necessarily native to Michigan but we'll run with it.

Recipes from these regions are as follows:

  • Freshwater Whitefish Chowder with Bacon, Potatoes and basil – p. 15
  • Smoked Whitefish Nachos with White Cheddar, Smoked Tomato Salsa and Cilantro – p. 19

The Fruit Belt:
  • Balaton Cherry and Michigan Maple Crisp – p. 50
  • Barbecued Pork Ribs with Blueberry Chipotle Chile Rub and Blueberry Mop – p. 55

Middle of the Mitt:
  • Grilled Ears of Michigan Sweet Corn with Black Truffles – p. 95
  • Michigan Beer Bread – p. 96
  • Michigan Double Sweet Corn Chowder – p. 98 (featured recipe)

The Thumb:
  • Maple Sage Breakfast Sausage – p. 140
  • Michigan Steamed Brown Bread with Dried Cherries and Walnuts – p. 144
  • Maple Corndogs – p. 147

The U.P.:
  • Beef and Pork Pasty with a Classic Suet Crust – p. 166
  • Michigan Maple Spice Rub – p. 157
  • Maple Chocolate Truffles – p. 169

A few of these sections need an explanation:

If you live along Lake Superior (in either the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the Duluth area of Minnesota), then you probably know that Whitefish is considered the poor man's lobster.  I am not fond of fish so I don't eat it, but the rest of my family loved it.  There is hardly a restaurant in these regions that doesn't have it on the menu.  Even though many of you won't be able to get your hands on Whitefish, you might want to try some of these recipes with a comparable fish from your area.  Check out Google for a home-turf equivalent.

Another wildly popular food from the U.P. (if not the most popular) is the Cornish pasty (pronounced pass-tee).  The Upper Peninsula (and northern Minnesota) is big into mining (of iron ore) and immigrants came from all over to work the mines.  The Cornish pasty was popular in the mining community but then caught on throughout the region. Today, you will find pasty shops everywhere and if you are traveling the area and find one, give it a try.

The crust for this recipe (which I did not try) is  made with a traditional suet crust but I've eaten plenty in my day that were made from vegetable shortening or lard and all was well.  Where disputes arise is the filling (rutabagas or not) and whether or not a pasty should be eaten with gravy, ketchup, or plain.  We were always a "ketchup" family as a pasty is really like a meat and potato casserole/meatloaf, wrapped in crust. 

Then there's the "Fruit Belt" of the lower peninsula.  The area I was just in, Traverse City (and environs) is the cherry capital of the world.  Also found in the "Fruit Belt" (as well as the U.P.) are blueberries and maple trees that yield maple syrup.  My dad used to tap the trees on our property to make syrup, and we also went blueberry picking several times when I was a kid.  Rounding out the fruit selection are recipes featuring Michigan apples.

As to the corn chowder I made, of course the recipe suggested using Michigan sweet corn, but alas, I used up some Iowa sweet corn brought to us by friends this summer.  I am no corn connoisseur but I doubt anyone could tell the difference.

So, with cheating on my mind (!), I set to work making this dish and I have to tell you that it failed because I failed.  The chowder itself is really flavorful and very good but I screwed up the corn situation and it was basically inedible. 

Here's what happened:  twice now, our Iowa friends have given us corn (Thanks, Doug and Emily!) and twice I've frozen it on the cob.  Methinks I should have blanched the corn or something but I didn't because what do I know? And so twice it ended up being soggy when I thawed it – no surprise, right? 

So this time around, I decided to try to dry the kernels by spreading them on a baking pan and setting my oven to 275.  When that didn't work, I thought maybe I should roast the kernels and so I put them in the oven at 425 just for a short period of time but by then, it was too late.

I was bereft.

Naturally, I should have looked online to see if I could find instructions, but I thought my solution would work.  It didn't.  As Andy said "Well, this is how we learn."  Ha!

So here's my advice to you if you make this dish (which you should because everything else was delicious):  1) if you use sweet corn (and the dish calls for you to add the de-kerneled cobs to the  chowder), do it when the corn is fresh, period, end of discussion. 2) if you cannot do that and want to make this dish, use frozen corn (proportionate to what you would remove from the cob) and cook it as directed.  And this is because 3) even though the recipe says to pour the hot chowder broth over the raw kernels to cook them, I am not sure that will happen unless you are using fresh kernels.  That said 4) the only ingredient in this chowder's "broth" is cream.  That's it.  My cream simmered nicely but it also thickened which is fine for the end result, but not so much to cook the kernels – at least in my completely inexpert opinion, emphasis on the "in."

I found I wanted to add chicken broth or water to the chowder so it was less thick but did not as I almost always stick to the recipe and the recipe said to use cream (and only cream).  You might want to tinker with it.

Finally, this recipe calls for you to use 1 tablespoon (less, if you make half the recipe as I did) of Roasted Garlic Puree, found on page 88, but you have to roast a lot of garlic for that 1 tablespoon and I didn't want to deal with it.  So here's what I did instead:  I caramelized one small onion along with some sliced garlic cloves, then pureed that and added it to the dish.  Worked just fine without the added fuss of roasting garlic.

And so kids, if you rework the recipe for either fresh corn or frozen (but cooked) corn, I think this might work. Heck, you could probably even use canned corn because who's going to know? 

After we picked our way around the corn, Andy suggested that maybe I could try again but I am not that fond of corn that I wanted to do so and so I passed.  Besides, I know where I sinned and shall now say the kitchen equivalent of  five Hail Mary's and move on.   And if you don't want to make corn chowder, there are plenty of other delicious recipes in this book with fabulous photos to boot (I am so hungry right now).

This concludes "Michigan, My Michigan," a look back at my home state and the fond memories I had of living and touring it.  As an aside, many people (including me) think that "Michigan, My Michigan" is the name of our state song but it isn't. According to Wiki, the state song is just "My Michigan."  I can see why there is confusion though, as the lyrics say "Michigan, my Michigan..." over and over but details, details.

Michigan Double Sweet Corn Chowder – serves 4
4 tablespoons unsalted sweet butter
1 cup white onions, peeled and diced
½ up leeks, white part only, diced
1 tablespoon Roasted Garlic Puree (recipe below) Ann's Note:  or substitute caramelized onions and garlic – see below
½ pound red skin potatoes, washed and sliced
*9-10 ears ultra fresh double sweet corn, preferably from Michigan, shucked, kernels removed, reserving "bones" (ears) *Ann's Note – Important see notes above and below about the corn situation
3 ½ - 4 cups heavy cream
Sea salt, to taste
Clancy's Fancy Hot Sauce, or similar, to taste
½ small lemon, juiced

For the roasted garlic puree – makes about 1 cup (of which you need ½-1 tablespoon)
1 pound fresh hardnecked garlic, whole heads or similar
½ cup extra virgin cold pressed olive oil
Sea salt, to taste
Black pepper, freshly ground, to taste
Fresh rosemary sprigs

And if you want to skip that, you can caramelize one small onion and a couple of garlic cloves (sliced) and then puree that.

To make the garlic puree:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Peel the outermost layers of skin off the heads of garlic leaving an intact whole head free of any scrap.  Split the heads in half (horizontally) opening the cloves.  Put the heads, cut sides up, in a small baking dish and pour the olive oil over them.  Season with salt, pepper, and top with the rosemary.

Cover tightly with foil or lid, place in the oven, and roast until about three-fourths cooked, about 45 minutes.  Uncover and return to the oven until the cloves begin to pop out of their skins and brown, about 15 minutes.

When cool enough to handle easily, squeeze the roasted garlic into a small bowl.  Press firmly against the skins to extract as much of the sweet roasted garlic as you can.

Add the oil from the baking dish and puree with the back of a spoon or in a small food processor until a paste forms.

Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator, for up to 1 week.

To make the chowder:
In a 3-quart saucepan, melt the butter; sauté the onions and leeks over a moderate heat until translucent and wilted, about 10 minutes.

Add the Roasted Garlic Puree (Ann's Note:  or pureed caramelized onions/garlic mixture or skip this all together!) and the sliced red skin potatoes.  Cook for another 3 minutes or until the potatoes are warmed and completely coated in the butter.  Add the heavy cream, "corn bones" and season with the salt and hot sauce.

Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and the "bones" have released their flavor.  Remove and discard the "bones."

***Place the rest of the raw corn kernels in the bottom of a soup tureen and pour the hot soup base over all, season to taste with the lemon juice.  Serve immediately.

***Ann's Note:  Since I screwed up the corn portion of our program, let me just remind you that to achieve the results above, use fresh corn otherwise, frozen but cooked corn is probably your best bet.  I just didn't think the "hot soup base" was hot enough to cook the corn but that's just me.  I also think the base was too thick and needs more than just cream but that's not what the recipe says!

If you get the corn right though, this chowder will be a home run instead of a slight swing and a miss.

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