Cornbread might well be called a keystone of Southern cuisine. Certainly its origins are Native American, as they used corn extensively in food preparation perhaps as early as 8,000 years ago.
What we know as cornbread today came about only after European settlers arrived in the South. Hungry for the staple bread of their European home, in a region that grew little to no wheat, some culinary entrepreneur substituted corn meal for flour and found the combination worked well.
There are four primary milled products we make from corn today -- corn meal, masa (flour), grits and polenta. There is a subtle difference between them all. Mississippi's expert on all things corn is Georgeanne Ross of Oxford, Miss., also known as The Original Grit Girl. She has been involved in making and shipping corn products to some of the best restaurants in the South for years and insists that the quality of the corn, hand selecting and hand milling makes all the difference in the world. Most would defer to her opinion.
There are a lot of good things that can be made to eat from corn meal, but any true Southerner would insist that cornbread must be placed at the top of the list. Sure, hushpuppies, corn meal dumplings and hoe cakes are good, but what compares to fresh, hot cornbread, slathered with sweet butter and what in the world would you mix with buttermilk if there wasn't any leftover cornbread?
3/4 cup self-rising flour
3/4 cup corn meal
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 tablespoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix all the dry ingredients thoroughly and then add the eggs and buttermilk and mix again until completely incorporated. Heat a heavy skillet with a little olive oil or, if you are not concerned with the health implications, use bacon drippings, until smoking hot. Pour the batter carefully into the skillet, this will give the cornbread a thick and wonderful crust and then immediately place it into the hot oven. Bake about 20 minutes, remove and allow to cool slightly, run a knife around the edge of the skillet and then flip the skillet upside-down on to a cutting board, with a slight bang. If you've got it right the cornbread will break away from the skillet with no sticking at all.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating cold cornbread, those of a certain generation had it along with a leftover baked sweet potato for an after-school snack, but it is critical to get the cornbread to the table while still piping hot. Slice it, serve it and allow each guest to add a pad or two of good butter and there is little more required for an excellent meal.
Basic cornbread recipe above
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup corn (best when just cut from the cob)
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped green chiles
1 chopped jalapeno
1/2 cup Monterey jack cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1-2 pinch red pepper flakes
Begin by sautéing the corn and onions in a little oil and a pinch of red pepper flakes for about five minutes. Allow to cool slightly then proceed as in the basic cornbread recipe above and adding the additional ingredients listed.
Cornbread and beans
The Carolina Chocolate Drops have a great song that begins "cornbread and butter beans and you across the table," and exemplifies the importance of this combination in Southern cooking. A well-made cornbread topped with long simmer beans or peas, well laden with pork and topped with a spicy chow-chow is enough to make a grown man cry. If you want to slow cook dried beans that is just fine, but this is a quick recipe using canned beans that have been well rinsed. You can use black beans, pinto beans, field peas or any other you like.
BASIC CORNBREAD RECIPE
4 cups beans or peas
1/4 cup smoked bacon or chopped smoked sausage
2/3 cup chopped onions
1 chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
3-4 cloves chopped garlic
2 cups homemade chicken stock
Black pepper, red pepper flakes
Proceed with the basic cornbread or Mexican cornbread recipes above. Drain and rinse the beans and peas thoroughly. Add the bacon to a large sauté pan and cook for 3-4 minutes, just until the fat is rendered but the bacon is not browned. Add the onions and bell pepper and cook for 6 minutes or so, remembering to season as you go. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add the stock and 1 cup of the peas/beans. Simmer slowly for about 30 minutes, taste and re-season as necessary. Add the rest of the peas/beans and simmer 15 minutes. Remove the cornbread from the oven, slice into equal pieces, serve one to each guest after slicing open, adding a tab or two of butter and topping with the beans. Serve immediately. This is even better when garnished with homemade chow-chow.