Photo by Maria Robledo
Occasionally, I retreat to a friend's cabin in the West Virginia Appalachians to rest and cook with what is there: a rudimentary kitchen and what the local store offers me. These constraints are a pleasing challenge that deconstruct my city self.
I've improvised roasting pans out of tin foil, and made a soufflé with local cheese in a cast iron skillet. I've used that same skillet to smoke trout using dried twigs from a nearby apple tree and steel forks as a rack and picked local dandelions and ramps to dress with bacon and cider vinegar. The only tool I bring down with me is a folding Opinel picnic knife because it affords so much more pleasure than the cheap stainless and serrated knives I find there, and is easy to sharpen on a piece of metal or stone.
Hankering for pancakes one morning, I decided to wing it and see if I could make them out of my basic corn bread formula, which I keep in my head. I mixed up the basic recipe with a slightly greater proportion of corn meal, an additional egg, and enough milk mixed with plain yogurt to simulate buttermilk, to make a batter. I fried bacon in my one skillet, both for crisp strips to accompany the cakes and for the fat to flavor them. Homemade raspberry jam, a gift from a friend, dressed the barely sweet, corny cakes: perfect.
Here was a lesson in essential formulas being a good basis for improvisation: corn bread became cornmeal cakes.
In addition to making fine breakfasts or brunches, these cornmeal cakes have many savory applications. I use them as a bed for warm shredded slow-cooked meat like Seven-Hour Spoon Lamb, with a dab of sour cream or crème fraiche.They are also great topped with crème fraiche and smoked salmon or caviar for an elegant hors d'oeuvres, appetizer or late-night New Year's Eve supper.
The batter itself has lends itself to improvisation. Lace it with finely chopped chives, rosemary, lemon zest, blueberries, even leftover wild rice, or Pimenton de la Vera, a sweet, smoky chile powder. It can sit in the fridge for a few days, waiting for whatever big idea strikes you.