Sunday, February 6, 2011

Of Cats and Rats and Cornmeal

Sorry that I haven't been posting muffins and pastas lately. I've been cooking other things instead (well, we still have pasta often, but haven't tried anything new in that area in a few weeks - the pasta will be back when I do, I promise).
     Winter break was lovely and, as always, too short. Sophie, the only other girl in our household, got quite spoiled spending the mornings with me - I discovered the decadent pleasure of bringing my laptop to the bedroom and writing in here instead of in my office sitting up in a chair like a proper worker bee! Here she is with a couple of new friends we found for her at IKEA on our way home from Phoenix yesterday.
I was born in the Year of the Rat (rats are clever and adaptable and much admired for those qualities, and I'm proud to be one!) so I pick up rats (and mice that I can pass off as rats) when I find some that I like. In addition to these little cuties (they're not filled with catnip, which may account for Sophie's indifferent expression), I have 3 bigger ones from IKEA in black, gray, and brown, and a couple of hand puppets made by Folkmanis, the wonderful puppet people. The biggest is a very big packrat who comes with his own usable backpack! Oh, and the more golden one on the left is a kangaroo rat; here's the whole tribe (so far):

      Sophie's 12 years old, and the first four years or so of her life (the vet's best guess) she was semi-feral, since the man she "belonged" to refused to let her in the house because she wanted to bring in the things she hunted. Of course, that's what cats do, but he didn't want to be bothered looking before he opened the door, so in spite of his wife's and children's entreaties, she had to stay outside. Then they moved away and she hid from them, and eventually came to live with us, where she's a very happy indoor cat now.  We named her Sophia (wisdom) because where we live she had to be pretty wise to escape becoming a meal for a coyote or bobcat.
     Anyway, she's probably older in experience than in actual years; she's lost several teeth so she eats more slowly (though she still prefers dry food) and her cat brothers, Cosmo and Angelo, will steal her food when they finish theirs, so that's why her dish is on the bed, so she can have breakfast in peace - and the rats don't eat much.

     Speaking of breakfast, here's a picture of ours today. Joe grew up in New England, where Johnnycakes are a traditional food. I had some at a diner there once and didn't much care for them, and somehow got the idea that he didn't either, but I guess it was just those particular Johnnycakes, because he assured me this morning that he'd always loved them - and now this variation on that familiar theme.
     These aren't quite traditional Johnnycakes, which are, among other things, made with white cornmeal - I much prefer yellow. I started with a recipe from Mark Bittman, the New York Times' "Minimalist," a column I will miss, since he's moving on to other endeavors, though he will stay on to write the recipe column for the Sunday NYT magazine. His recipe calls for pine nuts in the batter but they sort of get lost in the overall taste experience, and so I probably won't use them again, though I think thawed frozen corn kernels would be delicious in their place. Here's my variation on Bittman's Cornmeal Pancakes with Vanilla and Pine Nuts (you can find his at I've halved it to serve 2 generously, with five 2 1/2- to 3-inch pancakes apiece. Add some butter and honey or maple syrup and a couple of pieces of bacon and you'll have a happy start to the day.

Johnnycakes My Way
3/4 cup regular yellow cornmeal (fairly fine grind, not polenta)
3/4 cup boiling water
1/4 to 1/2 cup milk
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. pine nuts (optional; try substituting 1/4 c. thawed frozen corn kernels)
oil or bacon fat for frying

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Pour boiling water over cornmeal, whisk to get out the lumps, and let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1/4 cup milk, salt, vanilla extract, oil, and pine nuts. Mix well. Add more milk if the batter is too thick. You don't want it any thicker than regular pancake batter.
    Heat a griddle or heavy pan (I use a cast iron griddle) over medium heat until water drops skitter on the surface. Add a little oil for frying (I wiped the griddle with a paper towel dipped in bacon grease from frying the bacon) and ladle out batter onto the hot griddle. I don't make these very big because they don't have the structural integrity of regular flour pancakes and I don't want them to fall apart when I turn them. I also lightly spray the tops with Pam while the first side is cooking. Watch to see the edges begin to dry and bubble, like regular pancakes, then when the first side looks browned and a bit crispy, turn and cook the other side; it comes out to 3-5 minutes per side. Put them on a plate in the oven (along with the cooked bacon, if you're having that) to keep warm while you cook the rest of the Johnnycakes. You may need to adjust the heat of the burner; I usually wind up turning mine down a tiny bit after the first batch.
     Serve with butter and honey or maple syrup and pretend you're one of the early New England settlers! (They didn't have wheat in the early days and had to make do with the cornmeal the native people taught them to use, along with rye flour, so that a popular and common early bread was known as "rye and Indian.")
     Since Joe is not only a New England native but also Italian (on his father's side, Irish on his mother's) this breakfast inevitably led to a discussion of polenta, which is made with coarser cornmeal, and the "fried mush" my grandmother taught me to make from leftover ordinary cornmeal mush, which she served with butter and syrup just like pancakes. But more about that another day.