Sorry, just had to get that out of the way; Bruce Springsteen is on The Daily Show and I’m from New Jersey so I’m legally obligated to do that whenever I see him. Although I gotta ask, my love of the Springsteen aside, what the hell is that accent? Because as far as I know he’s from Freehold, which is located in neither Southwestern Pennsylvania nor the Chesapeake Bay region.
I grew up a few miles down the road from Freehold and spent many a teenage weekend at the Freehold Raceway Mall. I still sometimes find myself in Freehold. And that? Is not how people from central Jersey sound. We drop our “T”s and add unnecessary “W”s to the ends of our vowels and use “shit” as a synonym for “thing.” I’m just saying, something’s a little fishy.
(Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Workin’ on the Highway is one of the best songs ever, especially while watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform it live as a JUG BAND from the 20 yardline on the field at Giants Stadium. I can die now. Fucking A.*)
Also fishy: tonight’s dinner.** After an intensive Smackdown week, I am sometimes fucking tired I sometimes like to dial things down a little. So tonight, we went with shrimp sandwiches with garlic mayo on crackling cornbread, with a side of creamy cabbage and cilantro slaw from The Improvisational Cook. I gotta tell you, between all that raw cabbage and the beer I had with dinner, it’s like I’m in the fucking Willy Wonka Factory Fizzing Lifting Drink Room. Thank god we have no ceiling fans.
I always chuckle a little when I pick up The Improvisational Cook. I think it’s a great book; aside from solid recipes, it’s a nice starting point for people who are unsure about creating original recipes and flavor profiles and want a little hand-holding to see how different ingredients and flavors can morph as they’re paired differently. Still, the point of the book is to get you away from using books, so I always feel like it cancels itself out and should disappear into a puff of metaphysics, a tragic victim of its own Modus Ponens. The book that cannot logically exist.***
Was that too subtle for your mind? Yes, I am that fucking deep.
**Best segue ever, or THE BEST segue ever?
***For those who do like playing with flavor combinations but want to go a little more free-form, I highly recommend The Flavor Bible.
I started off with the cornbread, figuring that everything else could be done while it baked and cooled so dinner could be over in under an hour and I could have some quiet time with ER. Yes, I know that many people think ER has lept back and forth over the shark more times than Shamu during an afternoon’s performance, but it’s the last three episodes of the whole series and I want Neela to get back together with Ray and I am so hormonal right now that women spontaneously begin menstruating as they sit next to me on the subway, so you’re not taking away My Stories.
The cornbread was a classic recipe: that is, no sugar. Personally, I like sweeter, moister cornbread, being a stupid Yankee asshole who doesn’t appreciate the merits of dry, crumbly, plain cornbread, not that I am judging. We all have our tastes. I know this is A THING with the sugar v. no sugar, so I’ll drop it.
It was a simple affair: cornmeal and a bit of flour, baking soda and powder, a solitary egg, a little salt and some buttermilk just mixed to produce a barely-pourable batter.. I let a cast-iron skillet heat up in the oven before adding FOUR TABLESPOONS of bacon fat, scooping in the batter and returning the pan to the oven. That business with the four tablespoons was not me, it was the book, because even I was like “whoa, that’s a lot of fucking bacon fat” when I saw it and you know that’s saying something.
The batter began sizzling as soon as it hit the hot fat, and we turned to the rest of the fixins’ while bacon-scented steam billowed from the oven vents. If only there were somehow a way to trap that, or recreate it on a smaller scale…like a bacon bong! Someone get to work on that. We’ll split the profits 60/40 (it’s hard work coming up with all these ideas, so it’s only fair).
The slaw was remarkably easy for something that tasted so good, and that’s saying a LOT because I generally loathe coleslaw. I think it has something to do with growing up in New Jersey, where every time you went to the diner and got a burger it would come with the sad little plastic cup of cole slaw with a pickle spear* on top. Very few people eat that coleslaw and I was firmly convinced that the diner only had 10 or 15 of the little cups that were in rotation among the diners, so what I was really getting was the reject slaw of hundreds of other people who just wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. That, and I’ve never understood wanting to cover vegetables with mayonnaise (most salad dressing also confounds me).
This slaw was pleasantly non-mayonnaise-y and fresh tasting: just some red cabbage, chives and cilantro with a quick dressing of buttermilk and sour cream dressed up with some Worcestershire, hot sauce and sugar. The slaw didn’t sit around long enough for the cabbage to turn mushy, and the dressing wasn’t so gloppy that it masked the fresh veggie flavors.
I’m not saying I’m changing my tune about coleslaw, and I will never, ever in my life eat the plastic diner cup. I’m just saying I can get behind this particular slaw. In fact, let’s re-name it and call it a salad so I don’t have to create a complicated taxonomy of slaws I do (this slaw, carrot and ginger slaw) and do not like (classic cole slaw, the highly questionable “health slaw” sold at area PathMarks).
*I also hate pickles, which I have always said are good cucumbers ruined, so that probably didn’t help.
I also needed to make some garlic mayo for the sandwiches. Since I’m not all fancy-pants with the lightbox and the DSLR camera, there’s really no way for me to take a picture of mayo that looks appetizing in any way. I would apologize, but it’s not like I could have done anything differently.
This is the book’s cheater mayo, kinda like the way the public radio ladies help you boost boxed chicken stock: you take store-bought mayo, whisk in some good olive oil, lemon juice and white pepper, and voila, you have the Sandra Lee of mayos (although this mayo is not a drunk). For the garlic version, you also whisk in some garlic that you’ve minced and then repeatedly crushed with the non-blade edge of your knife until it turns into paste. I guess you could just push it through a garlic press, but then you wouldn’t get that forearm burn that tells you you’re getting a good workout.
Brian handled the shrimp while I reconstituted the mayo. This particular sandwich isn’t one of the book’s main recipes; it’s a spin-off* of the cornbread recipe. The sandwich instructions said we could use lobster, crab or shrimp. Since you never know if you’re going to find fresh lump crab and Brian freakishly doesn’t like lobster (and I didn’t want a $40 sandwich), we went with the shrimp. And since the book gave no guidance on what to do with the shrimp other than indicating that they should, in fact, be cooked, Brian gave them a little hit of smoked paprika and cayenne before their quick sojourn from raw to delicious.
*Wordpress would like this to be “Spinoza.” We’ll never know whether it really thinks that is the correct substitution, or if it’s using the existentialism of this book (as explained above) as a chance to show off its philosophical chops.
Assembly time. The book told me I could slice the cornbread in half lengthwise and use it to make an actual sandwich. Normally, I trust a cookbook until it has given me a good reason not to, but I admit this gave me pause. Even in the best of times, I don’t think I could make a sandwich out of straight-up cornbread, especially just-out-of-the-oven cornbread. I was able to kinda maybe sort of cut it, but there was no way to maintain the structural integrity of a traditional sandwich, so I went with an open-face version. If there’s one thing to which I’m deeply committed, it’s the structural integrity of my sandwiches. We take sandwiches very seriously here.
This was a really good dinner. Definitely one of those whole is better than the sum of its parts things, because I was a little unsure about the whole slaw/garlicky mayo/cornbread combo, but when you got a little of everything on your fork all the flavors played nicely and shared their blocks while also remaining distinct enough to be interesting. The slaw did a good job balancing the sting of the garlic and heat of the shrimp. I’m still not sure I’ve come around to the no-sugar cornbread (bacony bottom and edges aside); although it was good on the sandwich, I’m not a big fan of it plain without copious amounts of butter and honey. And then I got to go downstairs and watch ER without a computer on my lap, so all in all I’d have to call this a victory.
Final Score: Us, 1; Food, 0
ONE YEAR AGO: Tacogate ’08: The Final Chapter