How to Make Cornbread

Like most simple recipes, cornbread is more about procedure than ingredients. Pour about an eighth of an inch of oil, corn or vegetable, in the bottom of an eight inch skillet, and stick it in the oven on a high rack at about 425. Then take three cups of white self-rising corn meal and about half a cup self-rising flour, mix in a bowl with a scant teaspoon baking soda and a dash or so of salt. Add about 1/3 cup of corn or vegetable oil and mix with dry ingredients until about the consistency of rice. Add one large beaten egg, mix well, then add enough buttermilk to make a thick batter and enough water to thin slightly; this enables the meal to swell and makes for lighter bread. Take your skillet out of the oven, tilt to coat the sides with oil, and test the heat with a drop of batter. It should sizzle; if not, heat some more. When oil is sufficiently hot, pour in the batter, spread evenly, and put back in oven. Bake until golden brown. Remove by inverting skillet. Eat with butter immediately and enjoy being alive.

 

Black Bean Chili

Black beans put me in mind of health food restaurants, which doesn’t make any sense at all, since they’re among the starchiest beans on the planet and don’t have much nutritional value compared to lots of other varieties. This recipe comes from the Harvest Café in Oxford.

We always served it with a dollop of sour cream and sides of (brown) rice and dense crusty bread we got from some stoner in Abbeville. It was a substantial dish. The tomatoes were optional depending who was cooking and how hungover, but were always added after the beans were cooked; this is crucial: if you add tomatoes or salt before, the beans will toughen and sour.

1 lb. black beans
2 medium white onions finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 4 oz. can chopped green chilies
5 serranos
4 poblanos
1 can diced tomatoes, drained (optional)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
Salt

Sort and rinse beans, place in a heavy metal pot with six cups water (or vegetable or beef stock) to cover and bring to a rolling boil for fifteen minutes. Reduce heat, add onions, garlic and chilies; simmer until beans are soft, adding liquid as needed. Season, add tomatoes if you want, and cook on low heat. You want a thick, creamy consistency.  Salt to taste. Provide more heat on the table, pico de gallo or a pepper sauce and top with diced avocado, chopped fresh cilantro, diced red onion, shredded cheese, sliced jalapeños and/or serranos.  Makes about two quarts.

Catshit Cookies

Let me go on record as saying that the most important cookbook you’re going to give any female relative Of a Certain Age is going to be Jill Conner Browne’s The Sweet Potato Queen’s Big-Ass Cookbook (and Funeral Planner). This work is not so much a cookbook as it is an exercise in sheer, unadulterated attitude, a book about living life to its fullest, and the recipes are more often than not wonderful and indulgent. This is where I first ran up on what polite people call “cat poop” cookies. They’re great for Halloween, but also fun for kid’s parties. Here’s Jill’s recipe:

“Just put 1 stick butter, 1/2 cup cocoa, 2 cups sugar, and ‘/2 cup milk in a pan and cook it just until it bubbles a little bit around the sides. Then take it off the heat and dump in 3 cups Quick Oatmeal, ‘/2 cup peanut butter, and I running. over teaspoon vanilla. Stir it up and drop globs of it onto waxed paper and let it cool. (Cooling is, of course, optional.)” Serve in a shallow pan over crushed cereal or nuts. Provide a slotted spoon for scooping.

Swiss Steak: A Geography Lesson

Many years ago at a conference for Southern fiction at Ole Miss, I took umbrage at the inclusion of Bobbie Ann Mason’s splendid novel In Country because the author is from Kentucky, which I do not consider a Southern state. Kentucky was in the middle border during the Civil War, not a member of the Confederacy, and in my book it is not Southern, nor are Missouri, West Virginia, Maryland or Delaware.

When a family from Kentucky moved to my very small rural Mississippi town in the early 60s they were of course welcomed and quietly became members of the community. With them they brought Swiss steak, which my adolescent mind tagged as a Yankee recipe. For some reason the Swiss designation slipped right over my little provincial Southern brain, probably more because for obvious reasons Switzerland held far less significance than THE NORTH. Anything Yankee was automatically suspect, and as such Swiss steak entered the nether category Reserved for Further Observation.

“To swiss” is actually an English verb that has little to do with cooking, meaning “a calendering process for cotton fabrics that produces a smooth compact texture”. Some food writers have taken a leap of faith and declared that because the cooking process renders a tough cut of meat “smooth”, which is why beef cooked this way is “Swiss”.

The ease and appeal of stewed beef with tomatoes is world-wide. Bread and fry thin trimmed cuts of top round until browned, drain and place in a casserole. Add tomato  sauce, and bake until tender. Top with (Swiss) cheese and serve with buttered potatoes.

 

Maque Choux

This old Louisiana dish is best made with fresh sweet corn cob right out of the garden cut and scraped from the cob, not only for incomparable taste, but also for the starchy corn “milk” that does double duty as a creamer and a thickener. If you can find fresh corn, by all means use it, but for most of us—and for most of the year—the best substitution is frozen sweet corn kernels and a good heavy cream. This recipe is very basic; purists might even leave out the tomatoes. Smoked sausage is a nice option, as are shrimp.

Cut four or five strips of bacon into about one-inch pieces and cook in a heavy skillet over medium heat until the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon, cool and crumble. Add one large yellow onion, a green and red bell pepper, all diced, and two minced cloves of garlic. Cook until the vegetables are soft, then the bacon bits, either 3 cups fresh corn (scrape the juice from the cob!) or a 16 oz. sack of frozen sweet corn, and a drained 14 oz. can of petite diced tomatoes. Mix well until heated through, then add about a half cup or so of heavy cream, reduce heat to a simmer and stir until the vegetables are coated. Salt and pepper to taste; some people like this dish on the sweet side, some like cayenne pepper—or Tony Chachere’s—for a kick.

Creole Shrimp and Beans

You’ll find dishes with beans and seafood across the globe, and while this recipe is styled “Creole” a very similar Italian recipe uses diced tomatoes. You can use tomatoes in this as well, simply add them with the shrimp.

Put a pound of dried white beans (Navy, northern, or baby limas) in a heavy saucepan, add three cups of water, cover, and place in a 300 oven for about two hours, until cooked through A bay leaf or two is a nice touch. Sauté a large white onion, a cup of diced celery, and a diced ripe sweet pepper with a couple of minced cloves of garlic in olive oil. When the vegetables are soft, add a pound of peeled, medium-count shrimp and cook over medium heat until firm. Combine the shrimp and vegetables with the beans. Add the diced tomatoes, if you like. Season with dried basil and thyme, ground black pepper, chopped fresh parsley, and salt to taste. You can make this as soupy as you like by adding weak stock. Some people add diced smoked sausage or ham, and the dish is usually served over rice.

Mrs. Downing’s Children’s Garden

Edith Downing’s kindergarten was at 901 Poplar Boulevard, on the corner with North Jefferson Street.

Mrs. Downing’s husband, James Downing, was an executive with the Mississippi State Banking Department. A native of Lima, Ohio, Mrs. Downing attended the public schools there, Lutheran College, and graduated from Ohio Northern University. Later she took special musical instruction in Aberystwith, Wales, and in London. She was in charge of the music department of the Mississippi Institute, French Camp when she met and married James Young Downing. The couple moved to Jackson in 1912.

The Downings moved to 901 Poplar in the very early Fifties, and opened the kindergarten in 1951 or ’52. She and two other teachers, Catherine Lefoldt and Martha Taylor, held classes in a long, low building on the south side of the lot with a playground in between. The school building was a little shotgun with an “L” at the end with a one-way mirror where parents could watch their children at play.

As in all schools, everyone loved recess and the big green wooden jungle gym in the middle of the playground was a focal point for games. The May Day celebration featured a May Pole dance. The girls wore pressed, and probably starched, dresses every day. Students were often given worksheets, and stars were given for correct results. There were many “hands on” games where the children would begin an activity then move on to others in a planned order to stimulate their learning. A child’s birthday was celebrated with a party and he or she was told to throw pennies in a bucket to tell how old they were. Sometimes Mrs. Downing would split the double popsicles she served for sharing. Students also took turns churning cream in a wooden butter churn.

The kindergarten was warm and welcoming place, the teachers kind and attentive, and many of its far-flung graduates have remained close friends throughout the past 60 plus years.

Class of 1956-57: Bob Biggs, Graham Blue, Bill Brockman, Eddy Butler, Rick Carter, David Chapple, Laura Neal Dear, David Denny, Miriam Dickson, Kay Eisenstatt, Bruce Evans, Frank Ezelle, Karen Ezelle, Patty Farlee, Betsy Finger, Betsy Gordin, Lee Gotthelf, Gary Grant, Susan Haynes, Sarah Hendrix, Janice Hines, Bill Hollingsworth, Pam Howie, Jane Hutto, Sandra Jackson, Bob Lawrence, Harry Kirshman, Dudley Marble, Linde Mitchell, Joe Morris, Alan Orkin, Marianne Painter, George Reynolds, Roseanne Solomon, Ethel Louise Seay, Sally Sherman, Rusty Shields, Ely Siegal, Sue Stevens, John Studdard, Lynn Thomason, Tommy Underwood, Kathryn Weir, Willie Wiener, Robert Whitfield, Lina Yates, Yandell Wideman

(Contributors to this article include Bill and Nan Harvey, Cecile Walsh Wardlaw, Tish Hughes, Sally Brown, Patsy Shappley, Susan McRae Shanor, Michelle Hudson, Karen Ezelle Redhead, Susan Shands Jones, July Lane Douglass and Cindy Callender Fox, Annie Laurie McRee, Dr. Richard Pharr, Bill and Martha Mitchell Brockman.)

Moon Cheese

These crispy little snacks are addictive. You can use any low-moisture (medium or semi-hard) cheese: cheddar of any type, Edam, Gouda, Colby, “Swiss” or Monterey Jack. Cut the cheese into cubes, less than in inch, and arrange on an ungreased baking sheet. Don’t crowd the cheese bits, since they’re going to spread out as they melt. (Having said that, it seems no matter how well I space the pieces, I usually end up having to break them apart once they’re cooled.) Place in the upper rack of a low (250) oven for about 45 minutes to an hour. Cool completely before removing with a thin spatula. The cheese should be thin, crisp, bubbly, and really greasy. You shouldn’t have to salt these, but some people like red pepper or a little of that grated Parm from the  green canister. Eat immediately; they’re too fragile to keep.