Sweet and Spicy and Everything Nicey: Is it Beans and Cornbread Season Yet?
Wed September 14, 2011 11:50 am

Inspired by the beginning of fall (or, at the very least, football season), and the ever-so-slightly cooler air that seems to be hinting that the end of summer is nigh, I turned on the oven for the first time in months this week. For good measure, I brought out my cast iron skillet and my pressure cooker to make a meal that reminds me of Saturdays growing up. It's a meal that's full of family tradition, and one that I like to add my own little spin to: jalapeños.

My grandmother made a pot of beans almost every Saturday for as long as the family can remember; the tradition continues even though she's not at the helm of the kitchen. Pinto beans, cooked in the pressure cooker, seasoned so simply with a little bit of salt pork and served with a side of sweet cornbread. Pretty standard, right? Except here's where I divulge a family secret, one that may have you raising your eyebrows, but trust me when I say that you have to try this. All of us—my parents, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, the neighbors who stopped by, and eventually our spouses—top the bowl of beans with spoonfuls of dill relish.

My husband tried it one Saturday. After the first bite, he had concocted a plan to cook beans and cornbread for his family so they could try it too. Now all our fridges are stocked with a jar of dill relish, in the event that we have pinto beans for dinner.

When it comes to the accompanying cornbread, I like it to be both sweet and spicy—so here's how I'd recommend making it to go with that simple pot of beans this weekend.

Sweet Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread
2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups milk plus 2 tablespoons vinegar (or 2 cups buttermilk)
1 egg
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)
3 tablespoons butter, lard, or vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 450. In a cast iron skillet, heat one tablespoon butter (or lard, shortening, or oil) over medium heat. Add the minced jalapeños and saute for about 3 minutes, or until peppers show a little bit of color. Remove from heat, setting jalapenos aside to cool while you prepare the rest of the batter.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients, jalapeños, cheddar, and corn kernels. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, milk and vinegar (or buttermilk), and honey. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.

Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter or lard in the cast iron skillet and put it in the oven for a few minutes, until the fat is crackling. Pull the skillet out of the oven and very carefully pour the batter in. (It will crackle and spatter, but will form a crispy crust while baking.)

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the cornbread is golden brown on top and begins to pull away from the sides of the skillet. Serve nice and warm, with a bowl of pinto beans and dill relish.

(Inspired by a combination of recipes by Lisa Fain, Mark Bittman, and my own trial-and-error.)

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