Friday, October 16, 2009

Recipe: Jonnycakes (Rhode Island cornmeal pancakes)

Here in Southeastern New England you just can't get more down-home-swamp-yankee-soul-food than jonnycakes. Their history is long and finds its root in the pre-European-invasion food traditions of the local Wampanoag and Narragansett Indian tribes. Corn cakes were a tribal staple and the Native Americans generously shared their corn, its farming methods and its preparation with early settlers. In the case of Plimouth Plantation, jonnycakes (or something very similar) were in-part, the difference between the life and death of the colony. A error on the tribes' part which the intolerant Pilgrims soon made them regret. The negative aspects of American history aside, the early settlers took a serious liking to jonnycakes and they became synonymous with Southeastern New England farm life and are still available today. Which is something, because the ingredients while simple, take a little effort to produce.

Genuine jonnycakes are made from stone ground white cap flint corn. It's the same variety of corn that was favored by the local Wampanoag and Narragansett Indian tribes before the arrival of the Europeans. Still grown by local farmers, white cap flint corn (or Narragansett Indian Flint Corn) must be grown in areas isolated from other corn crops to avoid hybridization. It is also a low yield crop with stalks producing one to two ears of corn with each ear having only eight rows of kernels. The corn once harvested takes approximately eight months to dry enough to get to the point where it can be milled. Which takes us to the next step.

Genuine jonnycake meal has to be stone ground between granite millstones. This slow and traditional method not only produces a superior meal, but the one-pass method used in grinding the flint corn also allows a higher nutritional value in the resulting meal. Several historic mills currently produce the stone ground flour required to make jonnycakes. Among them are: Gray's Grist Mill in Adamsville, Rhode Island which is the oldest dating back prior to 1700, Carpenter's Grist Mill in Perryville, RI, dating to 1703 and Kenyon's Grist Mill in Usquepaugh, RI, dating to 1886. Their products are available in a few local markets. Both Gray's Grist Mill and Kenyon's Grist Mill offer their products online. Each mill claims their product to be the genuine item and all other products are inferior, but a lot of things with jonnycakes are like that.

Like all things much loved by passionate adherents, there is much dispute over jonnycakes. Points of view tend to form regarding where you live, what mill you get your flour from and who your ancestors are. There are several variants of the jonnycake that are defined by where one lives on Narragansett Bay. Mills aside, each variation has its faithful proponents whom will profess their favorite's advantages above all others. At the time of this writing I am aware of three general regional variations (also: subtle variations of each recipe can be found within its region):

East Narragansett Bay Jonnycakes which are small and thin with lacy and crispy edges and use only milk.

Mid-Narragansett Bay Jonnycakes which are medium-sized and on the thick side. These seem to be the newest variant.

West Narragansett Bay Jonnycakes which are large, thick and soft and made with the addition of boiling water.

Even the name "jonnycake" has been disputed in the past. One story I came across tells of a couple of 19th century politicians coming to blows in the Rhode Island State House over the need, or not, of the "h" in the name. Apparently, the fellow who wanted the "h" kept out won, because most places refer to them as "jonnycakes". Even the origin of the name comes into scholarly debate. Some scholars believe the word jonnycake is derived from "joniken" the Algonquin Indian word for corn cakes, while others point to jonnycake being derived from "journey cake" because the corn cakes travelled well. Here you choose the story that most fits in with your personal feelings. I know where mine lie.

While a fan of ALL jonnycakes (and nokake and cornbread), I grew up eating the East Narragansett Bay variety on my grandparent's farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island. My grandmother was a wizard at the stove and indulged me whenever she got a chance to. At the ignorant age of seven I once challenged her that I could eat all the jonnycakes she could make. Testing her love like that was pure folly and in under an hour I was stuffed to the gills with the crispy corn goodness produced in her cast iron skillet. My jonnycake pedigree is deep and can be traced back through Yankee farmers all the way to Native American ancestors. That makes me pretty damn romantic about jonnycakes and puts them high on my list of personal supreme comfort foods.

Jonnycake purists will tell you these have to be cooked on a well-greased cast iron pan or griddle. I can't say that's true because I mostly cook in cast iron anyway. Purists will also tell you that you serve them with sweet butter only. Well, when I ate them at my grandparents that's how I had them and they were GOOD! These days though, with concerns about cholesterol, I don't think it's a sin to use maple syrup or some other heart-friendly topping. You can use jonnycakes anywhere a pancake, biscuit, dumplings, potatoes or corn would be served. Thinking about it now, the next time I make some chili, I'm going to cook up a bunch of jonnycakes. I can't lose.

Behold the famed jonnycake,
easy to cook and quick to make.
Fare of Indian brave and white man
Crisp, golden joy in a cast iron pan.

I've presented three recipes below of the Narragansett Bay variations and one personal recipe. Try what you like and experiment a little. In the words of Richard Donnelly, Rhode Island's own "Jonnycake Man": There is no wrong way to make a jonnycake! I hope you try, and enjoy this simple and historic Southern New England pleasure.

East Narraganset Bay Style Jonnycakes (Courtesy: Gray's Grist Mill)

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar (optional)
1-7/8 cups of milk

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
Let stand a few minutes as mixture will thicken, (Add extra milk if necessary to keep the mixture thin).
Spoon onto on a well-greased, hot griddle or cast iron pan.
Cook, flipping after the edges turn brown so both sides brown evenly.

Mid-Narragansett Bay Style Jonnycakes (Courtesy: Richard Donnelly, Edible Rhody Magazine)

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal
1/8 cup dry milk
1 tsp of sugar
1/8 tsp salt
Pinch of either allspice, or nutmeg or ginger (optional)
1-1/2 to 2 cups boiling water

Place dry ingredients in a bowl.
Add the boiling water slowly and use the back of a spoon to smooth it and keep it from lumping on the spoon.
Drop spoonfuls onto a well-greased, hot griddle or cast iron pan and flip when the edges are brown.

West Narragansett Bay Style Jonnycakes (Courtesy: Kenyon's Grist Mill)

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp Sugar
1-1/4 cups of boiling water

Place all ingredients in bowl and gradually add boiling water.
Let stand a few minutes, as mixture will thicken.
Thin down with boiling water to a consistency that will drop off the end of a spoon.
Drop on a well greased, medium hot griddle by the spoonful, and cook for about 6 minutes each side, until brown.

Henry's East Narragansett Bay Style Jonnycakes

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar
1-1/8 cups of milk

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
Let stand a few minutes as mixture will thicken, (Add extra milk if necessary to keep the mixture thin).
Spoon onto on a well-greased, hot griddle or cast iron pan.
Cook, flipping after the edges turn brown so both sides brown evenly.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Recipe: Sweet Corn Cakes/Fritters

Sweet Corn cakes (or "fritters" as they are more commonly known outside of New England) taught me a valuable lesson about people and cooking. You can go out of your way and create an entire dinner, all the food can be great but one small thing can become a standout. Such was the dinner on the front porch of my old apartment one summer evening. I prepared all manner of Mexican specialties for my guests including smoky refried black beans, chicken fajitas, homemade salsa, etc. It was a basket of warm corn cakes drizzled with honey, prepared as an afterthought that was the hit of the party though.

Cakes/fritters are popular all over the United States, from the New England clam cake to the hush puppies of our Southern states. They are served as additions to other meals or popular stand alone snacks. They're not difficult to make and prepared mixes abound, but what's Zen about dumping a box of ingredients bolstered with chemical preservatives, compared to working with a nice recipe of wholesome ingredients? NOTHING!

I'll offer you a little advice in the way of quantity. Correctly made these things disappear faster than your cheap friends when it's round buying time at the bar, so make more than you think you'll need. I serve them drizzled with mesquite honey, but any flavor will probably do. They are also very good served as a side for chili or corn chowder.

Corn Cakes/Fritters are really versatile and you can steer them between savory or sweet as you like. You'll notice below that I keep the sugar kind of low. That's because this recipe should get most of its sweetness from good sweet corn. Also, you may be drizzling honey over them before serving them which will add additional sweetness. Another variation of this recipe that I prepare includes diced red bell pepper. To prepare that use 1-1/2 cups of sweet corn and 1/2 cup of diced red bell pepper instead of the 2 cups of sweet corn below.

Sweet Corn Cakes/Fritters

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white sugar
2 cups whole kernel sweet corn
1 egg lightly beaten
1 TBS peanut oil
1/2 cup milk
3 cups vegetable oil

In a mixing bowl sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar.

Stir the sweet corn kernels into this dry mixture.

In another mixing bowl beat the egg, peanut oil and milk together.

Pour the wet and dry mixtures together, stir until just blended.

Heat the 3 cups of oil in a heavy pot to 350°F.

Drop tablespoons of the batter into the hot oil and cook, turning occasionally until golden brown.

Drain on paper towels and serve warm, brushed with butter, drizzled with honey or sprinkled with salt.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Recipe: Slow Cooked Pot Roast

At the risk of sounding like one of the Beverly Hillbillies I'm going to confess that this dish kind of reminds me of something my grandmother used to make when I was a kid - roast raccoon. That's no lie, it's not even an exaggeration. We ate a lot of strange things at my grandparents house. For the record, it was all good. They were country people and products of the depression. My grandfather was a hunter and fisherman and my grandmother was a hell of a farm wife. She once saved me from a blood-thirsty and crazed fighting rooster. That story is elsewhere on this blog, something tells me it's probably got to do with a chicken recipe.

If my memory serves me well (and it usually does) roasted raccoon looked like roasted turkey only reddish brown with four drumsticks. There were of course, potatoes and carrots. I imagine a dinner like that will freak some people out, but it was good. Everything the woman cooked was good.

Okay, my freaky memory aside, this recipe is a great rainy Autumn Sunday dinner. Which coincidentally is just the kind of day I prepared it on when I finalized, prepared and photographed it for the blog. It is rich, hearty and delicious and of major importance: SIMPLE! You basically just do a little prep, chuck everything into a crock pot or dutch oven* and slow cook it and not touch or look at it for ten hours. It cooks while you do vastly more important things like watch television, play with the kids, do your yoga, read poetry or run around all day and do errands. Start it at 8:30 AM, do what you want all day and an amazing dinner is ready at 6:30 PM. Pretty sweet huh?

My only recommendation is that you don't over-pack your crock pot or dutch oven. The meat and vegetables will give off a lot of moisture during the cooking process and you don't want the liquid rising over the top. If you have a small crock pot or dutch oven, adjust the recipe as needed.

*My home range has a slow-cook feature so I prepare dishes like this in a covered dutch oven. Of course it works equally well in a crock pot.

Slow Cooked Pot Roast

3 lbs. Boneless bottom roast
1 TBS Dijon mustard
1 TBS brown sugar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 cup of red wine
Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
2 medium onions chopped
3-4 small onions peeled
4 carrots cut into 3-4" pieces
1-1/2 to 2 pounds small red and white potatoes (golf ball to egg-sized)
Your favorite homemade or store-bought biscuits
2-4 tsp cornstarch
1/2 cup water

Put the chopped onion in the bottom of your cooking vessel.

Mix the sea salt, black pepper, onion and garlic powders together and coat the roast evenly on all sides. Place it on the onions in your preferred cooking vessel - fat side down.

Take the potatoes, carrots and whole onions and arrange them around the roast. Be sure that you'll be able to close the crock pot/dutch oven completely when ready.

In a mixing bowl whisk together the Dijon mustard, brown sugar and red wine until the Dijon mustard and the brown sugar are completely blended in. Pour all the mixture equally over the roast and the vegetables.

Cover the cooking vessel, set it on low and let it cook for ten hours (If you're using a dutch oven, cover it, place it in the oven and use your range's slow cook feature and instructions).

When the time is up remove the roast and vegetables to a large serving bowl. cover it with a plate and towels to keep it warm while you prepare the gravy.

In a small bowl, whisk together the corn starch and water.

Pour all the liquid from the roast into a suitable pan and place it over high heat until it begins to boil (if you're using a dutch oven prepare your gravy in that). Lower it to a high simmer and slowly add 1/2 the water and cornstarch mixture while stirring constantly. You'll need to use your judgement here to get your gravy to the desired thickness. It is better to add it SLOWLY as you PROBABLY WILL NOT NEED IT ALL. If you add it all quickly, I hope you enjoy extremely thick gravy!

Slice or chunk the roast, plate it with the vegetables and a biscuit, dress it with the gravy as you like.

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