Untitled at the Whitney
Pete Wells writes five whole paragraphs about Untitled before describing any food. I picked the New York Times food critic to start off my project because the (capital T) Times is the preeminent culinary voice in the city, and has been as long as anyone can remember. Anonymously bestowed Michelin stars are debated and contested, but the stars given out by Wells and the New York TImes are treated as fact, set in stone; they may be disagreed with, but never ignored or dismissed. They simply are as if they always have been.
Which is why I found it fitting that the review this week was for Danny Meyer’s newest restaurant, Untitled at the Whitney Museum. Meyer is perhaps the biggest institution in New York dining right now. Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Blue Smoke, Shake Shack; his restaurants read like a montage covering the last 20 years in New York dining trends. Plus, he’s originally from St. Louis, which is just 3 hours away from Kirksville. My first attempt at making a dish I read about in a review, and I'm starting at the top. I didn't have a choice. This was fate.
Unfortuneaty, Pete Wells wasn’t describing any of the food. How am I supposed to recreate one of chef Michael Anthony’s dishes if all you’re blabbering on about is the stark architecture, reassuring vibe and controversial statues that could have been there but aren't? But here we go sixth paragraph. Finally. What have we got?
Pound cake with strawberries and ricotta. Sounds great but my pastry skills aren’t nearly up to restaurant standards. No way I’m starting this project that way. I’ll pass.
Panna cotta, more berries, not going to happen.
A “towering ship’s-prow wedge of cake” with sesame brittle, peanut butter icing and blueberry sauce. You’re joking, right?
I’m going to skim. See if that speeds up the process. I see words like tilefish, calamari, sea scallops; let me check to see if I’m still in a small, mId-western town, 1,000 miles from the ocean. Keep moving. Inviting words like “pork ribs” are followed by “tough.”
I thought I might have been bested by Mr.’s Wells and Meyer. But where the written word failed me, photography swooped in to save the day. At the top of the page, unmissable, was a beautiful, tantalizing portrait of something simple yet elegent: corn and bacon flatbread. Fat kernels of white and yellow sweet corn, along with chunks of glistening bacon, verdant pinwheels of okra, all were tumbling off a humble, blistered square of flatbread. I didn't need words. I live in Northeast Missouri. Corn, hogs, okra… you can’t throw a rock around here without hitting somebody involved with farming one of those things. And flatbread, that’s not a pastry. It’s basically a big biscuit that failed to rise; I’m awesome at making those! This is it folk, we are on our way.
My first task was figuring out how to construct this thing, and I had no words to help me. Just Ben Russell's photograph. I stared at it intently, hoping the secrets would reveal themselves to me. After that didn’t work I just tried to figure out how I would make a similar product. Flatbread? That’s easy, take my biscuit recipe, cut out the leavening agents, boom, buttery delicious flatbread. Now on to the toppings. Corn; easy. Bacon; easy. Okra; easy. It appears that there are thin strips of red pepper and micro greens added as garnish, shouldn’t be a problem. But, what kind of a suace or base is all this produce on top of? Are we talking white pizza - olive oil situation? I’ve got no hints.
I needed more information on this particular food item but I didn’t know where to turn. I couldn't go to another food writer. I wanted to keep this pure. I needed facts but I didn't want opinions with any intellectual heft or remote trace of food writing expertise that might outweigh Pete Wells’ nonexistant description. So I went to Yelp. There I found another picture of the flatbread, not so gussied up for professional cameras, that revealed my answer. There was no bounty of fresh produce spilling off of the bread to obscure what I was really looking at. Creamed corn pizza. I can dig it. To the Hy-Vee!
Here’s what I came back with:
5 ears of sweet corn (locally grown, no less)
1 pound thick cut bacon
1 red bell pepper
1 bag of mixed greens (to pick out the smallest ones for garnish)
1 bag of frozen okra
Unbeknownst to me there was a bit of an okra shortage in Missouri this year, so there was nothing left this late in the season and I got kicked to the frozen food aisle for my okra. Okra freezes fairly well, so not the worst result, but still, a minor setback.
I decided to use my uncle Frank’s creamed corn recipe because it’s basic and essential just like the book you can find it in, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. This isn’t a marketing pitch, but you should still be sure to buy this book if you don’t already own it. It’s perfect.
I was only going to be making about a half recipe as I’d be using it more as a sauce than an actual side dish. 4 out of the five ears of corn would become cream corn, and the rest would be used to top the flatbread, making it more closely resemble the NY Times photo. Also, I was using sweet corn, not field corn, so that precious corn milk you need to make transcendent creamed corn was hard to come by. (Read the recipe linked above for a better explanation than I can give.) I had to compensate with more butter to take it further into sauce territory.
Creamed Corn Sauce Ingredients
4 ears of corn, shucked & cleaned
Corn milk from all 5 ears
2 Tablespoons bacon fat
2 Tablespoons of butter
1 scant Tablespoon flour
First, I sliced off the kernels and milked the husks with the back of my knife, depositing everything in a large bowl. I even tossed the husks in, hoping to catch a few extra drops of milk. Now I needed bacon fat for the creamed corn, but I also needed bacon lardons fried up to top the flatbread. Multitasking! I sliced three of the bacon rashers into sticks (lardons, chunks, whatever) then cooked two full strips in the skillet to check temperature and get a good layer of fat rendered. This also results in having bacon to snack on while you fry up the chunks. This is an essential step. Do not skip it.
After the bacon was browned, I poured off some of the fat, added 2 tablespoons of butter, a scant tablespoon of flour and the corn with the corn milk. Stir. Wait. Scrape the bottom every once in awhile. If it’s to runny, add a tiny bit more flour (½ teaspoon or less) if it’s too thick, toss in an extra pat of butter. This creamed corn recipe takes almost an hour of simmering and scraping until the corn becomes a creamy delight, so this was a good time to finish my snack bacon and move on to the dough.
Flatbread Dough Ingredients
One cup of flour
½ stick of unsalted butter, cubed & cold
1+ teaspoon of salt
1+ teaspoon of sugar
Water (about 1 cup, but add slowly)
I used my basic biscuit technique here, minus the baking soda and with water instead of buttermilk, so I incorporated the butter into the flour using my pastry cutter, adding the salt and sugar whenever I remembered to. Then I slowly poured in water while I mixed with a fork, until the whole thing started looking like dough. I flopped the dough out onto a floured countertop and folded it over a few times, treating it rougher than I would for pillowy biscuits but short of kneading it, as one would do for bread. I decided to split it up into two portions to give myself a couple cracks at this, incase it was a massive failure.
Then I rolled the dough out on my baking sheet, very thin. I have an edgless baking sheet that allowed me to do most of the rolling there, if you don’t have one of those, I don’t know what to tell you. Flip your sheet pan upside down maybe? Could work.
The corn was fully creamed by now, so I spread it on top of the dough, then scattered about half of the bacon lardon across the flatbread. Intoto a preheated oven at about 450 degrees. After 10 minutes or so of slicing frozen okra into pinwheels, I took the flatbread out and cut it into rough rectangles, about the size one might serve a paying customer at an upscale museum restaurant in the Meatpacking District. I piled the leftover corn kernels and bacon, plus a few okra wheels onto one of the flatbread squares, and put that back into the oven to toast up. If you have a pizza stone or peel or brick oven or other such nonsense, feel free to use those at this time. You just want to make sure the oven is very, very hot, because you'll want some blistering on the flatbread, and you've got to fully heat that frozen okra. If you're using fresh okra, you might want to sautee it a bit first. If you're using REALLY fresh okra, don't bother. That stuff is good right out of the ground. Just get it hot. Your margin of error at this point isn't too high. Just make sure to keep an eye on it, because soon, it will look like this.
Behold! Slices of red pepper and a few tiny greens for garnish and here it is, Untitled’s Corn and Bacon Flatbread here in my kitchen in Kirksville, MO. It tasted just as good as it looked, and I understand why it was a recommended dish, and why the photo led off the review. Not sure why Mr. Wells felt it wasn’t worth mentioning, because the creamed corn and bacon on the crisp, flaky flatbread is a head-slapping “why didn’t this already exist?” combination. Don’t be surprised if it starts showing up on wine bar menus all over the country soon. The fresh, barely cooked vegetables on top entrench this iteration as a celebration of late summer, but it’s easily adaptable, and frankly, just easy. I judge my version worthy of a New York City restaurant menu, and I’m happy to make it any time Danny Meyer is back in Missouri and wants to come over. A rousing success. On to the next challenge.