15 February 2010

Family recipe Monday: cornbread and chili


It's been another cold week up here, and a busy one to boot. On Saturday we were out birding in the Rapid City-Rapid Valley area. Top sightings: 5 adult bald eagles, 1 immature; a big flock of sharp-tailed grouse feeding close to the ranch road we were on; numerous hawks everywhere; and a great horned owl on his/her nest. Why they nest in the bleak midwinter is unclear. The owls start duetting on the cold nights in December, a lovely, deep, eerie sound in the small hours of the morning. The owlets first learn about life in the cold months.

Everyone has different warm-up recipes for this time of year. Here is a favorite Texas combination that cures frostbite from the inside out. All of these are from the Shelton-Johnson family recipe collection.

Corn bread

1 cup buttermilk
1/3 tsp soda
1/3 cup flour
Cornmeal to thicken
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Yes, that is another cryptic one, isn't it? Here's one with a few more directions:

Corn kernel cornbread
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
¼ cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup milk
3 T melted margarine
1 cup yellow cream-style corn

Preheat oven to 450 F. Brush 9” square baking pan or skillet with melted shortening. Combine dry ingredients in mixing bowl, stirring to blend well. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, milk, margarine and corn. Add all at once to dry ingredients, mixing quickly and thoroughly. Pour batter into pan and bake about 30 minutes, or until bread tests done. Can also be baked as sticks or muffins. Serve hot.

I generally bake cornbread in a cast-iron skillet or cornstick pan. The trick is to grease it with the agent du jour (shortening, butter, bear grease, or whatever works in your household) (yes, I was joking about the bear grease) (unless that's really what you use; I'm not trying to insult the bear-grease lobby), and then to pre-heat the skillet in the oven before pouring in the batter.

Traditional Texas/Arkansas/Oklahoma cornbread is made with buttermilk; end of discussion. Many people (Lyndon Johnson and my grandfather Mack Johnson, no relation, just to name two) would then crumble the fresh cornbread in a glass or bowl of cold sweet milk as a late-night supper. Can't say I've ever tried this, because I am generally adding green chiles and cheese to my cornbread, and they were baking it simple and plain. I don't know how green chile cornbread would do in milk.

The cornmeal in the recipes above would have been either white or yellow. I personally also use blue cornmeal for a slightly different and more delicate texture and flavor. We had a black-bean potpie with a blue cornbread topping ready on Wednesday for a friend who drove 10 hours from Colorado and would, we knew, be tired and hungry when she got here. But that's another recipe.

Cornbread is very forgiving. You can keep it plain as above or throw in whatever jazzes it up for you. There is always an argument about adding sugar to the dry ingredients. Here's the issue: we are using very different corn varieties and hybrids from those in use in the 19th century. Theirs were naturally sweeter than ours, so they did not add sugar in the old recipes. That doesn't mean that adding sugar now is wrong--it may be the best way to approximate the original flavor. Sugar brings out the taste of the corn (and chiles, if you're using them), so, the sweeter the corn, the better the flavor of the bread. If you think that yours is a bit bland and dry in flavor, experiment with a little sugar or (even better) molasses.

Mix the dry ingredients, blend the wet ingredients, combine them into a batter, and bake it until the top is slightly springy and golden. That's all you need to do. Don't bother with a commercial mix.

Cornbread goes wonderfully with soups and stews, but perhaps best of all with chili. I'm not going to rehash (so to speak) the beans-no beans chili wars here; I'm just going to share a very old recipe that falls squarely in the no-beans camp.

Texas Red Chili

1/8 lb. suet, finely chopped
3 lb. round steak, coarsely cubed
6 T chili powder
1 T ground oregano
1 T crushed cumin seed
1 T salt
½ to 1 T cayenne (½ mild, ½ hot)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 T Tabasco if you dare (½ T)
1 ½ quarts water
½ cup white cornmeal or 3 T masa harina
8 oz tomato sauce

In Dutch oven, fry suet until crisp, add steak cubes and brown. Add seasonings and water; heat to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 ½ hours. Skim off fat. Stir in cornmeal and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. Serve with cornbread or pinto beans. Serves 8-10.

This recipe dates back to the 1800’s when it was served by vendors on the streets of San Antonio.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

With real chili like this, beans are only served on the side.

The vendors she mentions are doubtless the legendary Chili Queens of San Antonio.

Jack Sprecht/Institute of Texan Cultures at UTSA. The chili queens of Haymarket Plaza in San Antonio, Texas, pictured in 1933.

For more information on these ladies, check out this link. Chili is actually a north-of-the-border invention, possibly from the 1850s, as it turns out.

I'm following a fairly common convention in using two different spellings: "chile" for the peppers themselves and "chili" for the main dish. That's not set in stone. You also see it spelled "chilli." Chile is a Nahuatl word, not a Spanish one, for the pepper itself, and every spelling is a transliteration from this deep and ancient Aztec language. Here are a few other Nahuatl food words from this site:

Avocado (ahuacatl)
Chile (chilli)
Chocolate (from xoco(l)atl)
Cacao (cacahuatl)
Tomato (from (xi)tomatl)

Stay warm in the nest and eat well. If you try these, please post the results. Happy Monday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Okay, see now I'm hungry, and craving chili and cornbread. Which I will not have time to prepare for dinner tonight.--RB