Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Great Jonnycake Debate, Part I: Thick

jonnycakes thick cooked cakeNow that we have our syrup, it seems the time may be right to have a conversation about that touchy subject, the jonnycake. Not a national conversation--jonnycakes, after all, are native to Rhode Island and so the issue is deeply local—but a political football nevertheless.
The crux of the matter is: thick, or thin? An ocean divides those favoring the one over the other. Or rather, a bay: those who favor thick jonnycakes dwell west of Narragansett Bay (and often put an “h” in the spelling), and those who favor thin dwell on my side of the water, east of Narragansett Bay. In fact, the thick are often called “West of Bay” jonnycakes (sometimes called “South County”), and the thin “East of Bay” (sometimes called “Newport”). The Green Line. The Berlin Wall. The Naragansett Bay. There is no construct more political, or arbitrary, than geography.
I am a good neutral party to referee this debate. After all, I’m originally from New Jersey, and come to the subject with no congenital bias. On coming to Rhode Island, I first lived in West Bay—and my first jonnycakes were, of course, thick—but I now live in the thin country of East Bay. I approach the topic with a diplomat’s knowledge and respect for cultural differences of opinion. I have, as you surely know by now, no opinion of my own. I'm perfectly objective.
Definitions are the foundation of legitimate debate, so we’ll start there. A jonnycake is a pan-fried unleavened cake made from 100% stone-ground Rhode Island white flint cornmeal mixed with water (and/or a bit of milk, depending on allegiance) and a little salt. The real thing contains no sugar, no flour, no flavoring, no fat, no egg. It is the most basic, indeed primitive, of breads, its nourishing preparation yet another gift of the Patuxet Indians to the struggling Pilgrims. The unique bittersweet taste of a jonnycake is the taste of history.
We start with the thick side of the controversy because thick jonnycakes are most likely the closest, perhaps nearly identical, to the ones first tasted by the settlers. They are also somewhat easier for the beginner to make. Jonnycakes may be simplicity itself, but cooking them properly takes a lot of trial-and-error practice to obtain a cake that is fully cooked without being burned, and that will remove from the pan without benefit of a chisel and sledge hammer. Not to scare you from trying your hand, just to let you know that, if your initial batch is ruined, you are not the first. Lower the heat, use a heavier pan, and try again.
A classic but nearly forgotten way to serve thick West of Narragansett Bay jonnycakes is with roast chicken and gravy. Nowadays most people eat them exclusively as breakfast food, with lots of butter and maple syrup, but they make an admirable substitute for potatoes. In fact, my first taste of jonnycakes was as a side to a chicken dinner. A college boyfriend, the late Manny Read, made them for me, as I of course had never heard of them before arriving at URI. I prepared the chicken and gravy to accompany them (told that this was the proper way to eat them), dubious all the while as to the propriety of putting a sort of pancake alongside a chicken, let alone the palatability of any pancake that was to cook for half an hour. To this day, that meal is a vivid taste and personal memory. I suppose you could say it made me a Rhode Islander.
Back then, chicken and jonnycakes could be found on restaurant dinner menus, particularly in Johnston and other towns in the northwestern part of the state. One of my very old Rhode Island cookbooks even has a recipe for something called “Johnston Spanks,” a kind of deep-fried thick jonnycake, to be served with poultry and meat. I am not so sure you could find this dish in a restaurant anymore. But you can make it at home.Kenyon's cornmeal box
Thick West of Narragansett Jonnycakes
West of Bay, cooks generally use Kenyon’s or Carpenter’s cornmeal for their jonnycakes; note however that Kenyon’s has not used white  flint corn for five or more years due to low availability. You can visit Kenyon’s 17th century grist mill, located near University of Rhode Island in Usquepagh, or Carpenter's water-powered, 18th century grist mill in Perryville near Moonstone Beach. There is controversy about cooking time; I have given both timings, which in many ways depends on just how thick you like to make your jonnycakes and how you control your heat. Makes 8-10 thick cakes.
1 cup stone-ground jonnycake cornmeal
1 cup boiling water and more as needed
½ tea salt
Put the cornmeal into a heatproof bowl and warm it in an oven or microwave. Mix the boiling water into the cornmeal and salt to form a mush; let it stand, covered, for a few minutes. Add 1-4 tablespoons more water (some use milk, I do not) to thin, if necessary, to achieve the consistency of light, smooth mashed potatoes that will fall readily from a spoon. Some modern cooks also add a teaspoon of sugar or molasses, but it alters the divine bitter edge of a true jonnycake that is better offset with syrup or a sweet accompaniment such as chutney or glazed vegetable.jonnycakes thick on grill
Cooking Option 1
Heat a griddle medium hot and grease generously, preferably with reserved bacon fat or lard. Stir the mush once more, and drop it by tablespoonfuls to make  oval cakes about 3 inches long and ½” thick or more. There should be enough fat that the cakes sizzle gently around the edges. Cook, without disturbing or pressing down, 6 minutes; turn, and cook another 6 minutes. They should be brown and somewhat crusty; depending on your heat, they may be ready to turn (easily, without prodding at all) in a minute or so sooner, but jonnycakes need to be cooked through so that the center is not mushy. It is traditional to make and then discard the first (often burned) trial jonnycake, but once you get the hang of it you won’t have to.jonnycakes thick batch

Cooking Option 2
The same except heat your griddle to medium low and cook for 15 minutes each side. This is a more traditional way of cooking them, and is suitable if you like your jonnycakes plump.
As you finish your jonnycakes, put them in a hot oven to puff up a bit and keep warm. Serve with chicken and gravy (or as I do nowadays, pan juices thickened with a little butter), as a base for a sauced dish of meat or seafood, or for breakfast with butter and maple syrup. Maple-glazed carrots are a nice accompaniment to the chicken.

                        jonnycakes thick chicken

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Maple Syrup: Thrill of the Thaw

maple bottles2 copy March generally arrives in the nick of time: last year’s gallon of syrup is about gone, or may in fact have failed to make it to the next year’s production, forcing purchase at the store of a foreign (gasp!) product. Foreign state, usually—New Hampshire, Vermont (the largest producer in the country), Massachusetts, New York—but sometimes foreign country—Canada. If you knew how many my syrup’s-better-than-your-syrup joustings I’ve had with friends from other syrup-producing areas, you’d know just how fiercely loyal maple syrup fanciers are. In the realm of food, only corn and tomatoes spark similarly hot inter-state rivalry.
In the course of these arguments, I’ve been party to a number of side-by-side maple syrup comparisons. And I can say with confidence, if not particular helpfulness: they are all different. Weather, geography, local style preferences, and the economic incentives of and care taken by the farmer in the boiling process are all variables in a syrup’s sweetness, lightness, clarity, and overall quality. The syrup from the same farm will also vary from year to year.
Sugaring season lasts about six weeks, beginning usually in late February or early March, when the warmth of the sun on the trees causes the sap to run during the day, halting again at night as temperatures drop . The sap’s natural sweetness, ranging from about 1-4% (with a minimum of about 2% needed for syrup), is sucrose; the unique flavor comes from trace enzymes in the sap. Maple syrup is a completely pure, natural product; it is just boiled sap, with nothing added, until most of its water content has evaporated and its sugar concentrates to a density of nearly 70%. It is then strained, graded, and packed into glass, tin, or—increasingly—plastic (if you buy a large quantity or use your syrup slowly, I recommend freezing it and, if possible, transferring it into glass). These methods have barely changed since Native Americans first introduced this wonderful sweetener to the settlers. If you have your own sugar bush (group of sugar maple trees), you can even make your own. maple grades2
Maple syrup is a unique product requiring a good ten gallons of sap to make a single generous quart of syrup—the yield of about one tree for the entire season--and therefore commands a premium price according to grade. The grades have changed in recent years, and I still find it a bit confusing, to say nothing of silly. Ours used to be similar to Canada’s: AA (extra light or fancy), A (light) and B (medium), and so on. In the U.S., we now have three A grades: Grade A Light Amber (called Fancy in Vermont and some other areas), Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, plus Grade B; the four go from light and delicate to progressively more maple-y, dark, and robust. But even here there is a mix and match; at Spring Hill Farm in Exeter, RI, where I bought my syrup this year, they also were selling “CD,” in between the dark Grades C and D, both part of the Canadian grading system. What to buy? Around here, most people use Grade B for cooking and medium or dark amber for the table. But the real criterion is to buy what your local farm has to sell; most will have B and at least dark and perhaps medium amber; this year, presumably because of weather conditions and perhaps partly because of costs, very little fancy or light grade is available. In addition to the syrup, of course, maple sap is boiled to different temperatures to make creamy maple candies, maple sugar, and maple butter or cream. Buy those too.
Sugar houses are generally open to the public to watch syrup being made; at some, you can still enjoy the traditional treats of sugar on snow (a sort of candy made by pouring hot syrup onto snow) and maple-glazed doughnuts with sour pickles. Pancake breakfasts are sometimes part of sugaring festivals or tours. A few farms still offer tours where you can ride out into the woods with the farmer on a sleigh or cart to collect the sap; I remember doing this about 20 years ago, and what a delight it was to return to the tiny, steamy sugar house with its wood-fired evaporator after driving slowly through the dark woods in the raw cold of a March afternoon. While many farms today collect sap via reverse osmosis and a pipeline, not being a Luddite (at least, not entirely) I recommend a visit to any farm that uses any method of collection; the boiling process remains virtually unchanged, and its miraculous product is well worth the trip—not the least reason of which is to support the producers.maple syrup2 copy
Use your fresh-made maple syrup in anything where you would use regular sugar, and particularly where you would use brown sugar or molasses: in baked beans, gingerbread and other spicy breads and cookies, as a sweetener for hot cereals or bread or rice pudding, in a glaze for doughnuts or coffeecakes. Of course, maple syrup is probably at its most sublime simply poured over your best sour milk pancakes or jonnycakes, where its light, fluid sweetness serves to set off their tangy edge. Indeed, wherever you have acidity, such as a salad dressing, maple goes well. That’s what first led me to use it when mixing up a batch of homemade whiskey sours. The syrup substitutes for simple syrup, minimizing effort at cocktail time . Which is, after all, one of the main points of cocktail time.
Maple Whiskey Sour
This favorite of my father’s is well worth reviving. You can experiment with substituting any number of sweet syrups for simple syrup made of sugar and water. For example, I also use my rose-hip syrup to make whiskey sours with wonderful results. Makes 2.
3 oz. blended whiskey (my father used Seagram’s V.O., and so do I)
3 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice, or half lemon, half lime
2 ½ oz. maple syrup, preferably dark amber
lime slices (orange is traditional) and stem-on maraschino cherries for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, place 4 large ice cubes, the whiskey, juice, and syrup; shake vigorously, for about a minute. Strain into a sour glass or into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish. A proper whiskey sour should have a small frothy head to it.

                                                        maple sour2 copy

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Drawing Down Inventory: Frozen Blueberries

blueberry frozen2 copyI see from my calendar that it is March 15. As Caesar was so presciently warned, beware the ides of March! If you’re not careful, the first bumper crops of rhubarb* or asparagus will be here, and you will discover that you have not a square inch of freezer space in which to store them. Granted, this is not nearly so bad as being assassinated, but it can have its own fateful consequences. So, if you have not been doing so all winter—or if, like me, you have been but still have a good way to go on last summer’s fruits and vegetables before next summer’s comes in—it’s time to start drawing down inventory with a vengeance worthy of Brutus.
Start with the early-season items and work your way forward. My small amount of rhubarb is gone. I never froze any asparagus, so no pressure on that account. I have one jar of strawberry jam left, which I have moved from the freezer to the refrigerator for present consumption. Up next: the blueberries.
Frozen blueberries are an excellent substitute for fresh for most cooking and baking, from sauces and jams to cakes, pancakes, and muffins. The only thing I don’t like them for are pies and crisps; some people, not naming names, do use them for these purposes, but I think their water content is too high, both requiring too much added starch and sugar and having lost some of the requisite intensity of flavor.
For this reason I rarely make blueberry muffins with fresh blueberries: in season, they go into pies. But I love a good blueberry muffin, and have a few favorite recipes. One, which I will spare you, is an old-fashioned small, plain but rich muffin made with all lard; it is, truth be told, the one of which I am most fond. Another is a much larger, cakier, considerably sweeter muffin purported to be the original Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin recipe. One is always coming across recipes claiming to be the original this or that, but I think mine just might be authentic. I have had it since the 1970s, and acquired it while I was living in Boston—I think it was printed in the Boston Globe. Jordan Marsh was in its heyday at the time, and its flagship store, where the muffins were sold, was mere steps from my office. I ate them several times a week, and this recipe produces the real thing.
Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins
These muffins are loaded with berries, providing an excellent way to draw down your inventory. They are very good. The recipe is exactly as it was printed, except that I have added details to the instructions. Makes 12 large muffins, or 8 huge ones.
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups a-p flour
1 cup sugar
2 large brown eggs
½ cup milk
1 tea pure vanilla extract
2 tea baking powder
½ tea salt
2 ½ cups blueberries
2 tea sugar for sprinkling on topblueberry froz muffin cooked3 copy
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease a standard muffin tin, including the top surface. Use paper liners if you like; Jordan Marsh didn't, but they are easier to remove and freeze better if you do.
With an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy; reduce to low and add the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, beating until well blended; ramp up the speed again to medium-high and beat for another minute, or until you have a thick but still very fluffy batter. Sift the dry ingredients together and add them at low speed to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the dry. Mash ½ cup blueberries with a fork (you will need to bring ½ cup of your frozen ones to room temperature or nuke them for about 20 seconds first) and stir them in with a wooden spoon, which will turn the batter a uniform taupe-y purple. Gently fold in the 2 cups whole frozen berries.
Spoon the batter into the tin, piling it high in each cup. Sprinkle the tops with the extra sugar; you can add a little cinnamon or cardamom if you like. Bake for 30 minutes or more, until golden, and allow to cool in the pan on a rack for an additional 30 minutes before turning out, as they are very tender.
blueberry froz muf4 copy
* Speaking of rhubarb, I have a short article on this amazing vegetable in the current issue of Edible Rhody magazine.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Butterscotch Beans: Saturday Night Special

Butterscotch beans copyTo an outsider, New England has some odd gustatory habits. Sweet doughnuts served with sour pickles during sugaring-off season (hard upon us: coming up in a future post). “New York System” wieners that put minced hamburger meat on top of hot dogs—appropriately called “gaggers” here in Rhode Island, and not to be found anywhere in New York. Coffee milk, of course. And sweet baked beans as a main course, accompanied by rich, slightly sharp brown bread. Strange to you, perhaps; perfect sense to us.
The baked beans and brown bread are, in fact, a tradition for supper on Saturday in New England. It is, granted, an old-fashioned one, but one that has by no means disappeared, especially in the Northern states where, let’s face it, rib-sticking, intensely flavored food is what we crave on a blustery night (I live in “southerly” Rhode Island, but as soon as the temperature drops below 60, I start craving this kind of food). Baked beans are underrated, I think; they are one of those things, like good homemade potato salad, or rice pudding, that you just have to keep taking one more spoonful of. I’ll wager you haven’t made, perhaps not even served, baked beans in years (ever?). Try some; you’ll like them. You needn’t necessarily (although I recommend it, at least once) limit yourself to beans and brown bread: beans with baked, glazed ham and scalloped potatoes and green salad, a favorite menu of mine, will do. But do try them.
I use Butterscotch beans, a calypso bean also known as Steuben Yellow Eye, although you can use the more readily available Great Northern white beans. Butterscotch beans are a true heirloom, 17th-century bean generally believed to be the original—and still the best—bean for Boston Baked Beans. Like many dried beans, they are really pretty: you want to make something with them (I mean like a bracelet, not just something to eat). They nearly triple in size when cooked, having wonderful absorptive capacity, to borrow a term from the strategy field. Baked beans are infused with the flavors in which they are cooked. These are, in my house, maple, mustard (which supposedly aids their digestion, but just tastes good), and roasted salt pork. Sometimes I add some good chili powder for a little kick.
Rhode Island Baked Beans
This is based on the recipe of my old boss, Gary, but altered to substitute maple syrup for most of the molasses and with the addition of a huge hunk of roasted salt pork. You can, of course, skip the roasting step and simply cut up and add the salt pork. But you’d be sorry you did if you knew what you’d be missing. Historically, this dish would have included much more salt pork--the meat of the meal. Serves 12 or more; may be halved except for the pork, which can be cut by ¼.
2 lb butterscotch beans
1 lb salt pork, with as much lean as possible
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ cup dark molasses
1 cup maple syrup
3 fat cloves garlic, finely chopped (Gary said, “infinitesimally”)
6 T dry mustard
Put beans in a large bowl, add water to cover by at least 2 inches, and let soak overnight. The next morning, put the beans and water in a Dutch oven, adding more water if necessary so that they are completely covered; bring to a boil; and then reduce to a simmer and cook, skimming the major foam, for up to an hour—likely less. To test, lift out a spoonful of beans and blow on them gently: they are done if the skins split. Drain, reserving the liquid.
While the beans are simmering, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and cut the pork in half horizontally. Score the rind of the top half (you may need to make Roasted pork 2 copyindividual cuts in it with a sharp knife, as the skin is tough) and place it in the oven in a shallow baking dish; roast for 45 minutes, or until golden brown and the skin blisters. When done, lower the oven to 300 F. Chop the remaining half of the salt pork into ¼” cubes.
In a bean pot or other deep heavy dish (my ancient bean pot fractured from fatigue years ago, and I have since used a hefty soufflé dish), place the roasted salt pork. Pour the beans over/around the pork, leaving some of it exposed, and then distribute the chopped pork among them.
In a small bowl, mix the molasses, maple syrup, mustard, garlic, onion, and 2 cups of the reserved bean liquid. Pour over the beans, and combine gently so as not to bruise or break them; your hands are best for this. The liquid should be just at the level of the beans—not above, or they will stew; if not, add a bit more of the reserved bean stock. Put the lid on the pot (or cover with foil) and bake for five hours, checking the level of liquid hourly and adding a bit more to keep them just covered and to prevent them from drying out. Remove the lid and cook one hour more. The beans should be glazed and dark caramel in color. Serve with Boston brown bread and butter for supper, digging under the pork rind to pull out some long meaty shreds of pork for each serving.
If you are a true New Englander, you will make a bean sandwich with the leftovers next day, mashing them between two slices of sturdy homemade white bread spread with a little mayonnaise and mustard. A little sliced, grilled Portuguese-style chorizo would not be amiss.
Baked beans1 copy Beans and bread3 copy