Appearing as gleaming bricks of gold, this morning’s treasure is thick slabs of cornbread lightly toasted with generous smears of butter.
This isn’t just any ordinary cornbread. No, this bread was made from freshly ground corn, ground in my own kitchen from a mixture of locally grown organic Nothstine Dent and Plymouth Flint corn, fashioned into batter adapted from a gluten free recipe found on page 335 of ‘Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special’, ** and baked in my favorite eight inch round cast iron skillet. The recipe called for finely ground cornmeal, and even though the flour that emerged from my hand cranked grain mill was courser than fine, and even though I didn’t have buttermilk and had to substitute yogurt laced with half and half, the result was the kind of perfection that, like finding a piece of treasure, can catapult you into a flow of wondrous awe…
Many hours recently floating in the beautiful waters of the Caribbean were spent in this flow. Lying on my stomach in the shallow tide at the gentle crust of ocean ground, I would watch tiny rocks and shells as they became magnified through the clear water. A sparkle here, a flash there. I came home with but a handful of what felt like treasures,
not at all obvious as to what their value might be, but perceived as valuable nonetheless. One day, the heart rocks called out the loudest. Another day it was different lengths of glimmering rods of coral. Another day it was tiny flashes of color, bits of shells with edges worn smooth. But the real prize was the single rock spotted amongst thousands, the flash of two eyes, the face of a bear staring up at me…
How perfect really. A reminder of what I would be returning home to, the treasure of hibernation inside cold snowy days of deep winter. And yesterday was the day, steady snow all day and the quiet that accompanies life driven inside. Making cornbread and chili became the structure around which I was able to be with the storm from warmth within. Like the cornbread, the chili began with a pot of locally grown organic Jacobs Cattle beans, two cups soaked and cooked the day before. I dug about a third of a pound of ground lamb from the freezer, finely chopped the last medium onion, five cloves of garlic, and two carrots and began sautéing, cooking until meat was browned and onions translucent. Then added some spices, two tablespoons chili powder, one tablespoon cumin, a good dash each of ground fennel, cayenne pepper, and salt. The 28 oz. can of organic plum tomatoes was added with all the juices, each tomato shredded by squeezing through appreciative fingers directly into the pot. Added about 1-3/4 cups water and a seasoned vegetable bouillon cube, brought it all to a boil, added the beans (with about 1/2 cup of their liquid), and simmered gently for about an hour. Then went to find the giant block of pure cacao that Molly brought back from Peru. Another treasure. There is only so much, and then there will be no more. I cut off about two ounces worth
and added it to the chili with an equal amount of tomato paste. After a little more simmering, the chili was done and ready to rest.
I’ve always found that the quality of hibernation is enhanced when actually being exposed to the elements for a time. With chili complete, I began the process of donning snow gear and strapping on snowshoes. Just walking the meadow with Nora leaping all around me in the swirling snow, taking in the vastness of white,
and then replenishing the stock of firewood was enough to bring me gratefully back into a cocoon of woodstove warmth, assemble and bake the cornbread, and anticipate the sedative effects of a belly full of treasure. Whether a slab of cornbread or a shimmering jewel, whether felt in the head, heart, or belly, this perception of treasure is inextricably linked to a quality of innocent seeking and wonder. The blending of flavors and heat in the chili, combined with the airy crunch and barely sweet moist crumb of the cornbread become the treasures that mark presence in and occupation of a day.
And it is the transitory nature of treasure, here one moment, possibly gone the next, that makes it so much fun to search for…
**Southern Wheat-free Cornbread (adapted) from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special
2 cups (finely ground) yellow or white cornbread
1/2 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used grapeseed oil)
1-1/4 cups buttermilk (I used 1 cup whole milk plain yogurt + 1/4 cup half & half)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Oil a baking pan or skillet (an 8 or 9 inch square pan or round skillet will work best) and set aside. In a medium bowl, stir together 1/2 cup cornmeal and boiling water. The cornmeal will become mushy and then stiff. Set aside.
In a large bowl, sift together remaining cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Beat the egg into the cornmeal mush and stir in the oil. Whisk in the buttermilk to make a thin batter. Add liquid ingredients to dry and fold with spatula until batter is just smooth, and immediately pour into prepared pan.
Bake until center of cornbread is slightly rounded and firm and golden brown at the edges (about 35 -40 minutes depending on size of the pan….). Cool for at least twenty minutes before serving.