Hello, and welcome back to Down Home Food. I need to begin today by making a correction to my last column about Col. Harland Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. The part about him having a restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina was incorrect. The article that I read was wrong. The restaurant that he operated during that time was the one in Corbin, Kentucky. I apologize for that error.
Today we’re going to talk about the two staples of the Appalachian mountain diet; soup beans and cornbread. If you have soup beans, you might have fried potatoes, cabbage, or chow-chow, but you simply must have cornbread.
Mountain people have always been pretty self-reliant, eating what they hunt, forage, or grow for themselves. Farming in the Appalachian Mountains has always been difficult and used to be nearly impossible.
The old mountain folks used to say the easiest way to plant crops in the mountains was to load a shotgun with seeds, stand on the porch, and blast it into the hillside! That would get er’ done, wouldn’t it?
Beginning with the Native Americans, every generation that has cultivated mountain land has known that certain types of beans flourish there. The Appalachian mountains were once home to dozens of varieties of beans Many are now categorized as heirlooms. When dried, these beans are excellent keepers.
Pinto beans are the variety of bean most likely to be referred to as soup beans, although they can also be great northern beans or a combination of both, referred to as mixed beans. This is what we most often had when I was growing up, and also what I like the most today.
Are soup beans a soup? No, they aren’t. They are slowly simmered beans that are soupy. Each time soup beans are reheated, the beans get creamier and their liquid thicker, richer, and more delicious.
I was talking to Rick Henry recently about us both growing up eating soup beans so often. I know that we had them two or three times a week, but Rick recollected that he ate them four or five times a week.
Soup beans have been essential to the mountain diet for a very long time Yet, Appalachian people didn’t grow their own. No matter how poor, they bought or traded for them. This makes no sense does it? Why would people who produced nearly every speck of their own food, buy dried beans that had been grown up in Michigan.
One reason and one alone. Too cheap to bother. During the Depression, struggling mountain families realized it cost less to buy pinto beans to eat than it cost to buy beans to grow. Dried pintos were and still are about the cheapest protein available. Mountain people couldn’t afford to grow pintos and they couldn’t afford to do without them.
At one time, mountain people ate soup beans because they had to. Today, we eat them because we’ve grown to love them.
Now for that accompanying cornbread. When Europeans first moved to this country, they were used to having wheat flour and making their bread with it. When they arrived here, wheat and flour weren’t readily available, so they had to learn from the Native Americans to grow corn, dry it, and make their bread from it.
There are many varieties of cornbread from all over the world. Let’s compare southern cornbread to northern cornbread.
Southern cornbread is generally made from white cornmeal, no flour, NO sugar, baking soda, baking power (usually), and buttermilk. It absolutely must be baked in a cast-iron skillet to be true southern cornbread. Southern cornbread generally only has one egg. Northern cornbread usually has two or three eggs. The leavening in northern cornbread is generally only baking powder. It even matters how you cut your cornbread. Southern cornbread is usually cut into triangles while northern cornbread is cut into squares.
Here is a recipe for plain old soup beans, southern cornbread, northern cornbread, and a southwestern variety.
As always, enjoy!
Plain Old Soup Beans
Makes about 6 cups of cooked beans
1 pound dried pinto beans (or great northerns or a combination)
2 to 3 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
Seasoning meat: a piece of side meat, a piece of fat back, 3 slices smoky bacon, or 2 tablespoons bacon grease.
Pick through and discard any shriveled or unappealing beans. You may also find tiny pebbles, sticks, and dried dirt or mud, remove anything that doesn’t look like a bean. Pour into a large bowl and cover with a couple of inches of cold water. Skim off any chaff. Let soak several hours or overnight.
By the next day, the beans will have absorbed much of the water and nearly doubled in size. Drain beans and rinse gently.
Transfer beans to a large, heavy pot. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 2 inches. Add seasoning meat. To help your meat cook more completely, cut a couple of slashes almost all the way through. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a very gentle simmer. If you want the beans to be firm when done, leave the pot uncovered. If you want the beans to be creamy, partially cover the pot.
Check on beans once in a while to give them a little stir and to make sure they stay submerged in the cooking liquid. If the top has gone dry, add hot water to cover.
Check beans for doneness after 45 minutes. When the beans are barely tender, stir in the salt and continue to simmer until done, 15 to 45 minutes more. I usually cook mine at least two hours. If the water becomes too low, and the beans are still hard, add a little more water and continue to cook. When the beans are soft and the broth starts to thicken taste for seasonings. If they are not salty enough, remove the pot from the heat and add more salt, to taste. The beans will continue to absorb salt as they cool.
Southern Style Cornbread
1 cup stone-ground white cornmeal
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I usually use same amount of solid Crisco®)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Quickly combine all the ingredients except the oil in a large bowl, whisking well.
Put the oil or Crisco® shortening in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet and heat the skillet, either on top of the stove or in the oven. When the skillet is good and hot (the oil should be smoking). Pour in the batter.
Bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until is nice and crusty brown.
Note: I add a little more oil or shortening than is called for. After heating, I pour a little of the hot oil into my batter. It’s the way I grew up seeing it done, so that’s how I do it. Having that skillet good and hot will make your crust crispy.
Northern Style Cornbread
Vegetable oil cooking spray
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 1/2 cups whole milk
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 9-inch square pan with oil.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Stir in the cornmeal. Set aside while, in a smaller bowl, you whisk together the sugar, eggs, melted butter, and milk.
Combine these two mixtures, stirring just enough to combine the ingredients, then transfer the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake the cornbread until it is deeply golden, about 30 minutes. Cool for a few minutes, and cut into squares.
Chou-Chou’s Dallas Hot-Stuff Cornbread
Vegetable oil cooking spray
1 1/4 cup unbleached white flour
1 3/4 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 ½ cups milk
1/3 cup milk vegetable oil (such as canola)
2 fresh garlic cloves, pressed or finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped or, if you prefer grated
1 cup canned creamed style corn
1/4 to ½ cup sliced jalapeno peppers (fire-roasted, sautéed fresh, or canned pickled)
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated sharp Cheddar or Jack cheese
1 tablespoon butter
Salt, for sprinkling the bread
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray an 11 by 15 inch baking pan with oil, and set aside.
Sift, or stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.
Break the eggs into a second medium bowl, and whisk them well. Whisk into them the milk, oil, and pressed garlic.
Combine the wet and dry mixtures, using a whisk (the batter will be thinner than usual). Use as few strokes as possible. Stir in the onion, creamed corn, jalapenos, and half the cheese, mixing just until the ingredients are well combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and top with the reserved cheese. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and dot with the butter (which will melt instantly), and a sprinkle of salt.