Chili and cornbread. Beans and cornbread. Stuffing with cornbread. The dish is in the cast of many menus, but it always gets stuck in the supporting role. No doubt cornbread’s long history (think hardscrabble predecessors like ash cakes) and cornmeal’s ubiquity in the diet of our forebears led some to take it for granted. But now that it’s no longer relegated to being a cheap and simple plate-filler, we’re afforded the luxury of not only enjoying the crumbly stuff but also carping about how it should be prepared. Many recipes call for quarter-cuploads of sugar, but I sit firmly at the campfire with George Bailey, who, writing for the Houston Post in the early twentieth century, declared the addition of sugar to cornbread “an idea born of the devil” and fraught with repercussions, not the least of which included making “men trifling and women frivolous.” In any case, I’d like to celebrate the less controversial adaptations of the classic recipe, in particular the glorious Tex-Mex version, which enlivens the ancient grain with the zesty zip of green chiles, the festive pop of fresh corn, and the salty tang of cheddar cheese. Crowned with a pat of butter and flanked by a cold beer, there’s no reason this humble bread can’t be the lone star of a satisfying Texas meal.
Serves 4 to 6
(makes enough to fill an 8-inch cast-iron skillet)
2 tablespoons bacon drippings (can also use vegetable oil)
1 cup stone-ground coarse yellow cornmeal
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup fresh corn, cut from the cob (can also use frozen)
¼ cup sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh poblano chiles, chopped (can use any type of green chile)
1/2 cup shredded cheddar or longhorn cheese
Grease a cast-iron skillet with the bacon drippings, then place in the oven and heat to 450 degrees.
Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk the egg with the buttermilk, then add to the bowl of dry ingredients. Add the corn, onion, chiles, and cheese and stir to combine (don’t overstir).
Remove the skillet from the oven and pour the melted drippings into the batter (there won’t be much). Give the batter a quick stir, then pour it into the skillet. Bake for 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cut into wedges and serve.