Thursday nights are a bit of a problem for us. My fleet-footed Naomi and her running-obsessed father go to the indoor track for speed workouts. The track doesn’t open until seven. And young Nick (aka The Littlest) has to be fed and in the bath by seven. Somewhere in there, dinner has to be produced.
So The Littlest gets his scrambled eggs and peas fed to him in the midst of a lot of putting on of running shoes and finding shorts and hurrying to get homework done, and I try to start something resembling food. I’ve been trying out a variety of near fast-foods these Thursdays, and I’m also settling on a staple of from-scratch corn bread, recipe courtesy of Mark Bittman. It can be put together in the time it takes a fifteen month old to eat scrambled eggs (and a Fig Newton at the end) and cooks in the time it takes the same fifteen month old to take a bath. You might have to run downstairs with the fifteen month old in his towel at the end to rescue the bread from the oven. But that’s not a necessary part of the process. The bread smells great and is comforting and tasty and makes whatever you’ve thrown on the table with it seem like a real meal. For a while I was cooking from TJ’s corn bread mix or Dr. Oetker’s organic corn muffin mix and they’re both quite good, but Mark Bittman’s recipe is almost as easy and really nails it. So, tonight’s Thursday post speed-workout dinner was this cornbread, green salad with a light mustard vinagrette, and TJ’s pulled pork barbeque (a choice influenced by Naomi). The bbq is not as good as the pulled pork from Sparrows, but you just never know when Bob Sparrow will take it into his head to make some, particularly in the winter, so the stuff from the bright yellow tub at TJ’s is a reliable and not at all bad substitute. At least all the plates were clean. Then again, I’m not sure two people who have just done a fast few miles have the most discriminating palates. The best part is that there’s half a pan of corn bread for breakfast.
In unrelated news, Shana seems to be taking an interesting turn toward baking and the results are making their way to work. The other day there was a pine nut tart that I could have eaten all day long, and today there were insanely good chocolate crinkle cookies, so rich that although my conscience regretted the second one, my stomach was content all afternoon. She should tell you about them more.
Here’s what Mr. Bittman has to say about cornbread:
Time: About 45 minutes
4 tablespoons butter, olive oil, lard or bacon drippings
1½ cups medium-grind cornmeal
½ cup all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ cup sugar
1¼ cups milk, more if needed.
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put fat in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or in an 8-inch square baking pan. Place pan in oven.
2. Meanwhile, combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix eggs into milk, then stir this mixture into dry ingredients, combining with a few swift strokes. If mixture seems dry, add another tablespoon or two of milk.
3. When fat and oven are hot, remove skillet or pan from oven, pour batter into it and smooth out top. Return pan to oven. Bake about 30 minutes, until top is lightly browned and sides have pulled away from pan; a toothpick inserted into center will come out clean. Serve hot or warm.
Yield: 8 servings.
OLD-FASHIONED CORNBREAD: Reduce fat to 1 tablespoon, sugar to 1 tablespoon (or none) and eggs to 1. Bake as above.
LIGHTER CORNBREAD: Separate eggs. Stir yolks into milk, as above, and beat whites until stiff but not dry, then gently stir them into prepared batter after yolks and milk have been incorporated. Bake as above.
The liquid can be buttermilk, soured milk (add a tablespoon of vinegar to a cup of slightly warmed milk and let it sit for 10 minutes or so), or yogurt (with a little milk for thinning if necessary), all of which make for a slightly lighter cornbread than regular milk does. You can even use chicken stock, which produces an oddly lean but very moist cornbread that’s quite good.
Then you could add bits of cooked bacon, sautéed onions or shallots, chili powder or cumin, chopped chilies or herbs, grated cheese, mashed or puréed beans or fresh, canned or frozen corn.
With some of these you may have to adjust the amount of liquid you add. After you make cornbread a few times, this will become second nature, and you’ll probably stop measuring altogether.
(I haven’t stopped measuring yet, but I’m getting there. I’m not all that close to trying the chicken stock though.)