Y’all, I’m really sorry about the gap in posting. I was on vacation for the first few weeks of July, and though I had planned to have all sorts of things prepped for posting during that time, work before and after just got completely out of hand. But even though I wasn’t able to get it together enough to actually post, I did manage to take some pictures of food on vacation.
Jarod and I spent a week with his family on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to celebrate his parents’ 40th anniversary. (Congrats again, guys!) We stayed in a little cabin at the top of a winding gravel road on the side of Blue Mountain, thirty minutes or so from the nearest town. From our deck we could see the peaks of Hurricane Ridge to the west, the Olympic National Forest to our east, the forest behind, the valley and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in front of us, and Canada in the distance. (Hi, Vancouver Island!) It was an idyllic setting, with black-tailed deer wandering out of the forest to nibble at wild black- and salmon-berries, and fresh-caught salmon in the markets. So of course, in this paradise of fresh Northwestern food, I made beans and cornbread when it was my turn to make breakfast.
What can I say? You can take the boy out of the South…
In truth, beans and cornbread and groups of people on vacation has a long history for me. I’ve always enjoyed the combination for any meal as a sort of (rather liberal) riff on Appalachian soup beans, but the basic shape of this recipe really came into focus on a rafting trip near a decade ago. I and many of my creative writing classmates decided to drive out from Columbus, Ohio, to raft on West Virginia’s New River and crash in a friend’s aunt’s mostly empty old house in Fayetteville. I took on the task of cooking for the dozen of us, armed with little more than a giant pot and a good knife. (That trip earned me the moniker “The Culinary MacGyver” for a good few years.) This same basic recipe was our pre-rafting breakfast: simple and hearty, easy to make while still sleep-bleary, and cheap as anything.
So in some ways, making this for my husband’s family was a silent homage to good friends and good rafting. But it’s also just plain good eats: tender, moist cornbread smothered in rich, smoky beans — add a fried egg and some strong coffee and you have a meal that fortifies you for your day, whether you’re rafting, mountain hiking, spending a day writing blog posts, or curling up with a good book in the blissful air-conditioning.
Vacation house beans and cornbread
This is a simple breakfast that’s far more than the sum of its parts: it’s filling and so delicious that I’m often struck by a sudden craving for beans and cornbread in all months of the year. You don’t have to be in a mountain-cabin vacation house to enjoy it, but if you can swing that setting, I highly encourage it.
A note on cornbread: y’all, do not come for me with your beefs about sugar in cornbread. I hear and respect the no-sugar-in-cornbread-ever tradition. It is not my tradition. I was raised on the recipe on the back of the Aunt Jemima cornmeal bag, which is the basis for this recipe. If you want to substitute in your own no-sugar cornbread recipe, please go right ahead! But I’m frankly a little tired of having my Southern bona fides questioned because I don’t happen to stick to a particular orthodoxy. (If you want some broader perspective on the sugar question, including some revealing ethnographic and agronomic histories, I recommend Kathleen Purvis’s “Why does sugar in cornbread divide races in the South?“)
For the beans
1 c dried pinto beans
1/2 lb bacon
1 bunch scallions, chopped (both green and white portions)
Salt & pepper to taste
For the cornbread
4 Tbsp butter
1 c all-purpose flour
1 c yellow cornmeal
3 Tbsp sugar
4 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 c milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
For the beans
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of salted water. When you’re ready to cook, drain the beans and set aside.
In the pot you’ll cook the beans in, cook the bacon over medium heat until well-rendered and beginning to crisp. Drain off most of the fat, leaving a tablespoon or two.
Add the scallion and cook very briefly, then add back the soaked beans and 3 cups of water. And a heavy pinch of salt and pepper, or to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until beans are tender (about 1 1/2 hours). If they are too liquidy for your taste, uncover and boil to cook down liquid.
For the cornbread
Preheat oven to 425°F. Put the butter in an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish, or a 10-inch cast iron skillet, and place into oven as it preheats.
Combine all the dry ingredients in one large bowl and the egg and milk in another.
When the oven is preheated, check the butter: it should be lightly browned and nutty-smelling. If it isn’t browned yet, let cook in the hot oven for another minute or two.
When butter is ready, stir wet ingredients into dry, then pour the hot butter into the batter and fold in. Scrape the batter into the pan and bake for about 18 minutes, until the top is firm and lightly browned.
Spoon beans over a square of cornbread and enjoy.
The usuals apply: grate some cheese on there, throw on a fried egg, give it some hot sauce. You know how you like your breakfast!
Any bacon will do, but if you happen to find some that has a brown sugar cure on it? Huminah huminah.
Vegetarians: just drop the bacon. You’ll likely need more salt, and a bit of smoked paprika and/or chipotle wouldn’t be amiss.
If you’re rushed, you can do a quick soak of the beans by bringing them to a boil in salted water, then letting sit off heat for an hour. Drain and continue as directed.