Monday, October 4, 2010

ingredient: BUTTERMILK

Other than the new go-to name for Brooklyn restaurants, what is buttermilk, anyway?

Glad you asked.

When people did such things as make their own dairy products, buttermilk was simply the liquid byproduct of turning milk into cream. These days companies are able to bypass the cream-making process by adding a culture of lactic acid bacteria to milk in order to ferment it. The bacteria increases the acidity of the milk and gives buttermilk its characteristic sour, tangy flavor.

And it’s that sour, tangy flavor that made me shudder the first time I tried buttermilk. It was so thick and off-smelling that I wasn’t clear what differentiated it from spoiled milk. Of course this is partially cultural prejudice because in other parts of the world, such as the American south, people enjoy drinking buttermilk straight-up. Buttermilk is also a popular drink in Scandinavia (but honestly those people will eat anything that’s been fermented. Fermented shark. Fermented lamb’s balls. I see fermented milk as the least of their worries.)

Lately, I’ve seen a resurgence of buttermilk on menus. It's gone beyond the classic buttermilk pancakes to buttermilk waffles, buttermilk fried chicken, even buttermilk ricotta. At first I dismissed buttermilk's sudden popularity as part of the same campaign by the masterminds at P.B.R (Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer)- in other words, it seemed like a genius ploy to sell off-tasting products by marketing them as old-timey and serving them with BBQ. Anyway, buttermilk may be retro, but a poor-man’s Yuengling, I mean milk, it is not.

Buttermilk is the perfect ingredient for any product in the bread/cake/muffin family. It can add a subtle tang to an otherwise sweet dish (buttermilk coffee cakes are delicious) but really I think it contributes most in the moisture department. Maybe because it’s so thick, it does a better job than regular milk in keeping your baked goods nice and moist. It has its uses in cooking as well. Buttermilk dressings are my new favorite for salads and vegetables because they’re creamy without tasting fatty, being gloppy, or generally overpowering my greens.

Buttermilk and Scallion Biscuits with Cracked Coriander

One of the perks of the buttermilk/BBQ revival in America is that here in New York I can order biscuits much more frequently. (Or at least get homemade biscuits more often, because I’m not above a Popeye’s biscuit, especially at 3 am when you’re walking through the drive-through asking for a sixer of “biz-cwees.”)

The following biscuit recipe hits the mark: it’s super-flaky, faintly buttery, and has a nice kick from the scallions. The original recipe called for ramps, but it’s fall, and regardless my grocery store is lame, so I substituted scallions. Unlike most cookies and pie crusts, you don’t have to chill biscuit dough. Which means you can read this and think I WANT A BISCUIT and satisfy your lust in 40 minutes or less. Do it. I know you want to.

3/4 cup chilled buttermilk
3/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) COLD unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg, beaten with 1 TBSP water to make egg wash
3/4 teaspoon coriander seeds, cracked

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Mix buttermilk and scallions
in small bowl, then set aside.

Add the flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper in the food processor, and pulse to blend. Add the cold butter to the processor. Pulse the mixture until the butter is the size of peas. NB: Because I like my biscuits extra flaky, and the melting cubes of butter is what provides this texture in the finished biscuit, I leave my pieces of butter a little bigger in my biscuits than I would in say, pie dough.

Transfer the flour mixture to medium bowl.

Add buttermilk mixture and stir until a dough forms.

Scoop dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and use your hands to press it out to 7x7 inch square about 1/2 inch thick. Cut the dough into squares. This doesn’t have to be super precise, and you can use a biscuit or cookie cutter if you want. I got 8 biscuits of about the same size.

Transfer biscuits to a baking sheet. Brush the biscuit tops with some of the egg glaze, this will make them brown and glow nicely. Sprinkle with cracked coriander seeds.*

Bake the biscuits until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack.

I decided to bring the biscuits to the next level, so I split them in half and topped them with scallion cream cheese and pieces of smoked salmon. They were awesome. You could also do little biscuit sandwiches with ham. And of course they're good plain, hot, and crumbly, straight from the baking sheet.

*The best way to crack coriander is to put the seeds in a ziplock bag, place the bag on a cutting board, or the floor, and pound them lightly with a rolling pin. See below.

Eggplant with Buttermilk-Thyme Dressing
Adapted from Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Fields

I adore eggplant. I am unequivocally in favor of any recipe in which a vegetable gets to be the main ingredient. (Luckily Patricia Fields has written entire book of recipes that do just this; see above.) Though eggplant may be the meat (bad-da-ching) of this recipe, the flavor is in the dressing. Thyme is the perfect herb here; it stands its lemony ground but doesn’t overwhelm. The buttermilk is important because it’s rich enough to smooth over the spiciness when you get a bite of the raw garlic. Also, don’t you hate it when you drizzle a dressing over a vegetable and it sits there stodgily, making it so you don’t get dressing with every bite? Not the case here: this dressing is light, with just enough body to coat the eggplant evenly. Feel free to try it on other veggies or a salad. I know I will.

2 to 3 Japanese eggplants (these are the long, smaller type, not the big, fat, Italian type)
3 large cloves garlic, minced
for dressing:
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon mustard (preferably a smooth Dijon)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
½ cup buttermilk

To make the dressing, combine the salt, olive oil, mustard, thyme and buttermilk in a small jar. I had a mason jar, but you can also use an old jam or mayo jar, or to be honest, just put the ingredients in a bowl and stir energetically, but then you miss out on the fun of shaking it. Cover the jar and shake the ingredients to blend. Let the dressing sit for an hour in the fridge to allow the flavors to blend.

Cut the eggplant into long strips, and then cut those strips in half, so that your eggplant looks like thick-cut fries. This is honestly a matter of preference though, and you could cut it into cubes and be done with it.

Bring about 2 cups of water (depending on the size of your steamer) to a simmer in the bottom of your steamer. Place the eggplant on the steaming rack, cover, and steam until the eggplant is soft and cooked through, about 15 minutes. Again, cooking time will vary with the size of your steamer, and the size of your eggplant pieces, so check the eggplant at about 10 minutes to see if it’s done. Also, if you wanted, you could just sauté the eggplant in a pan with a tablespoon of olive oil.

When the eggplant has cooked, transfer the pieces to a platter or serving bowl. Sprinkle the garlic over the eggplant, season with salt, and then drizzle over 2 TBSP or so of the buttermilk-thyme dressing. It’s up to you how saucy you like your vegetables. I found a few tablespoons of the dressing went a long way! Gently toss the eggplant to coat it, and serve warm.


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