I hate milk. And I think I'd die if I had to drink a glass of thick, lumpy buttermilk. But from the day I first tasted Judy Rodgers' (Zuni Café, San Francisco) buttermilk mashed potatoes, I've been fascinated by what this ingredient can do for food. And so it was that I put a 24 hour buttermilk-soaked roast chicken on the menu for last night to see if it met the promise for glassy, crisp skin. Anxious to use the rest of the quart I added a buttermilk spoonbread to the menu, and in one of those out-of-left-field lucky turns, wherein I went to replenish my refrigerator staple Maytag blue cheese, the store was completely out of that product but did have a Buttermilk Blue. This meal was meant to be!
The salad: chopped fresh, raw walnuts, a Belgian endive thinly sliced, three mandoline-shaved Brussels sprouts, a handful of arugula, crumbled Buttermilk Blue, a green onion, and a simple dressing of red wine vinegar and canola/roasted nut oils. Killer. The sweet/strong/nutty/bitter greens covered all the bases and were tempered by sweet nutmeats and blue cheese. If you have never teamed raw walnuts and blue cheese for a salad, you've missed out on one of the greatest salad combinations for almost any set of mixed greens (excluding iceberg, which I love but not in this). And if you're careful with the vinegar, the cheese and the tannins of the walnuts actually make this a salad for serving with red wine.
The chicken: I followed a NYT recipe that seasoned the buttermilk with garlic, rosemary and honey to buttermilk. I substituted maple syrup. Have to say that on the larger pieces of meat I didn't find the rosemary or sweetness came through very much though the garlic was quite pronounced--it wasn't a complete thru-flavor of the kind brining delivers, and therefore I didn't find it completely successful on a whole (spatchcocked for better marinade absorption) chicken. BUT OH MY GOD THE WINGS. Brownish black, creamy and crisp at the same time with all the flavors present. I am going to repeat this marinade in the near future, wings only. Will probably add a bit more sweetness and a touch of heat, too, maybe sriracha.
The buttermilk spoonbread: my new tolerance for scrambled eggs has led to a flirtation with soufflés, which also opened the door for spoonbreads. I've used this one recipe several different ways, but last night I arrived at the ultimate: a mixture of two different cornmeals for both fluff and crunch, and the addition of grated parmesan to amp up the tang on the buttermilk and make a little Italian connection with the chicken's rosemary element. I made enough for four servings just to use up the buttermilk; thought I might serve Bob the leftovers for breakfast with a sausage patty. Poor Bob: we ate it all last night, and if I had made enough for six we'd have eaten that too. This was SO good!
All in all a great meal progression from the cook's point of view, too; a totally efficient mise en place on the fly. First, turn on the oven and decant a red wine. Next, get the chicken ready for the oven. Then assemble the salad ingredients in a bowl and chill, while making the cornmeal mixture for the spoonbread. Also separate three eggs, and grease a soufflé dish. Set the cornmeal mixture aside to cool. This will have taken you all of just ten minutes. Now pour a glass of white wine. Put the chicken in the oven, set the timer for 25 minutes, and take wine outside to the patio and relax. When the timer goes off, return to kitchen. Stir the yolks into the cornmeal mixture, beat the egg whites, fold in and pour the mixture into soufflé dish. Add to oven. Set the timer again, and return to patio with your first course salad. Pour more white wine if needed or switch to red. Enjoy salad course while spoonbread and chicken finish cooking. When the timer goes off again, buss salad plates to the kitchen and return with roast chicken and spoonbread.
Here's the recipe for my spoonbread.
Tangy Buttermilk Spoonbread
1 1/2 c buttermilk
1/4 c basic yellow or white cornmeal
1/4 c coarser grained polenta cornmeal
2 tblsp butter
1/4 grated parmesan cheese
two pinches salt
Preheat the oven to 375. Grease a soufflé dish. In a small saucepan, heat buttermilk and whisk in cornmeal. Stir until the mixture thickens and gets smooth and glossy, which takes just a few minutes, add butter and salt. Set aside to cool. Separate the eggs.
When the cornmeal mixture is cool, stir in the egg yolks and the parmesan cheese. Separately, beat the egg whites to soft peak and then fold gently into the cornmeal-yolk mixture. Bake about 25 minutes until puffy and golden brown. Serve immediately.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov