Corny Southern staple shines Entertaining: Homey cornmeal can make a hit in sophisticated party fare.

July 26, 1998|By Betty Rosbottom | Betty Rosbottom,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

One of the most important staples in my mother's pantry was cornmeal. A Southern cook, she used it to make corn bread, or she would coat slices of okra with cornmeal before frying them.

She also included it in a batter for julienned eggplant, which she sauteed in hot oil. I love the slightly crunchy texture that this ground grain imparts to a dish and find that today I reach for cornmeal in my cupboard almost as often as my mom did.

A few weekends ago I invited friends for a Saturday night porch supper at our house and began our dinner with crispy Corn and Zucchini Cakes. The cakes were made with fresh corn kernels and grated zucchini bound in a mixture of buttermilk, egg and cornmeal along with seasonings of cayenne pepper and nutmeg. I dropped the batter by ladlefuls into a hot, lightly oiled skillet and quickly sauteed the cakes until rich golden brown on both sides. Served with a small dollop of sour cream on top and a sprinkling of chives, these cakes proved irresistible to my guests.

I normally try to avoid last-minute sauteing when entertaining so I fried the cakes several hours ahead, kept them covered loosely with foil at cool room temperature, then reheated them in a moderate oven at serving time. The corn cakes reheated beautifully and were as crisp as if just cooked.

Although these morsels made fine appetizers to begin a summer meal, they could be used in other contexts: as a side dish to pan-seared salmon fillets, for example. They could also be topped with smoked trout, sour cream and chives, and served at a brunch, and I think they would be equally good as a garnish for a warm tomato soup.

Corn and Zucchini Cakes

Makes 24 (2 1/2-inch) cakes

2 small zucchini (about 1/2 pound), cleaned but unpeeled, ends cut off and discarded

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup fresh corn kernels (scraped from 2 to 3 ears corn)

1 cup buttermilk

1 large egg

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup yellow cornmeal

oil for sauteing

1/4 cup sour cream, optional

1 tablespoon chopped chives or flat-leaf parsley

Grate zucchini coarsely and place in large sieve or colander set over mixing bowl. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Let stand 3 to 4 minutes, then place zucchini in clean kitchen towel and squeeze to extract as much liquid as possible.

Discard any liquid from mixing bowl. Place squeezed zucchini in bowl. Add corn and mix well.

In separate bowl mix together buttermilk, egg, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, cayenne, nutmeg, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in cornmeal, then add zucchini and corn.

Heat enough oil to coat bottom of large, heavy skillet (cast iron works well) or griddle and place over medium heat. When hot, ladle 1/8 cup batter for each cake into pan, leaving space around each cake for it to spread. Cook until golden on bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and cook until other side is golden, 1 to 2 minutes more. Place cooked cakes on baking sheet in 200-degree oven on middle rack. Continue cooking remaining batter, adding more oil to pan as needed, until all batter is used.

(Cakes can be made 3 hours ahead. Fry cakes and place on baking sheet or sheets but do not keep warm in oven. At serving time, reheat cakes in oven, uncovered, at 350 degrees until hot and crispy, 5 to 8 minutes. Watch carefully.)

To serve, place cakes just slightly overlapping on serving plate. Place small dollop of sour cream in center of each, then sprinkle with chives.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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