I grew up reading the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original nine volume set of semi-autobiographical books about pioneer life. As a harbinger of interests to come, one of the things I remember most enjoying about the books was Laura’s descriptions of the foods she and her family ate. When times were good and they had a home with four walls, a well-tended garden, and tidy fields of wheat and corn crops, her family ate fresh garden vegetables and fresh homemade cottage cheese. When times were rough and months were spent living in a covered wagon or outliving seven straight months of blizzards, they ate bread, potatoes, and, if they were lucky, whatever wild game they could shoot. Every single thing they ate was cooked in cast iron or baked within an open fire.
Recently my husband and I started reading the Little House books to our preschool-aged son. In addition to the occasional on-the-fly edit in order to omit the rather blunt and one-sided talk about the local Native American tribes (the original inhabitants of the land on which Laura’s family was settling), we have spent a great deal of time discussing the different types of food that Laura and her family ate. (We also spent a great deal of time talking about food when we read Farmer Boy, since a substantial portion of that book is spent discussing the mountains of food that Laura’s husband Almanzo ate when he was a boy—every meal seemed to be presented as an exercise in competitive calorie intake, no doubt as a result of their twelve hours a day of hard manual labor on a farm.) Much of the food of the era, as well as the manner in which people got that food, is not only unfamiliar to a city-dwelling boy of 4.5 years of age, it’s also nearly unimaginable. What’s a prairie hen? What is salt pork? And did you really just say that Pa shot a bunny rabbit so the family could roast it for Christmas dinner?
Perhaps in an effort to distract our son from the fact that Laura’s Pa could frequently be found shooting and skinning what is regarded, to some people in this house, as being the world’s greatest animal, I decided that we should focus our attention on a pioneer-era food that was less fraught with peril and woe. That is, in essence, the long story of how I came to make johnnycakes.
As luck would have it, one of my favorite breakfast food bibles, James McNair’s Breakfast, happened to have, smack dab in the center of the book, a simple recipe for Johnnycakes. A quick perusal of the ingredients led me to some automatic adjustments, namely the immediate realization that these crispy corn cakes were just begging to be paired up with something mildly spicy and smooth to counter the sweetness and crunchiness. One roasted poblano pepper later, I had exactly what I had imagined.
When paired with a soft fried egg and an additional sprinkle of chopped roasted poblanos, you’ve got yourself one special meal, suitable for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Though not entirely traditional in the pioneer sense, I’d like to think that, were the times good and the livestock thriving, it might even possibly be considered Laura-approved.
Roasted Poblano Johnnycakes
Partially adapted from James McNair’s Breakfast
1 medium-sized poblano pepper
1 cup white flint or other stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup milk
Set your oven’s broiler to high heat and place an oven rack on the highest shelf, nearest the heat of the broiler. Set the poblano pepper on a heavy baking sheet, then place directly under the broiler. Let the skin of the pepper blister, darken, and flake. Turn pepper several times, allowing its skin to blister and flake on all sides. When pepper’s skin has been uniformly darkened, remove pepper from oven and set on a plate, cover with aluminum foil, and allow pepper to cool to the touch and the skin to become loose. When pepper has cooled slightly, remove the skin. Remove and discard stem and seeds. Roughly chop roasted pepper and set aside 1/4 cup to add to the johnny cake batter.
In a bowl, combine the cornmeal and the salt, then gradually add the boiling water, whisking to prevent lumps and integrate cornmeal and water. Stir in the melted butter, sugar, and milk. Stir in 1/4 cup chopped roasted poblano pepper.
Meanwhile, heat a griddle or a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, then generously brush with melted butter.
Spoon the batter, about a heaping tablespoon for each cake, onto the cooking surface. Cook turning once, until crisp and golden on both sides. Serve hot. If desired, top with a soft fried egg and an additional sprinkling of chopped roasted poblano pepper.