While we’re on the subject of frugality this month, let me tell you about my daily dinner dilemma. Every day, I come home from work and I must decide whether to cook something new and exciting, using fresh and spunky ingredients, or if I should cobble something together out of the leftovers that are getting lonely in the refrigerator.
This past week has been especially rough because I learned the hard way that two pounds of red cabbage is A LOT OF CABBAGE. I made a braised red cabbage dish last weekend, and let’s just say that I won’t be making it again. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t very good, either, and I’ve been trying to be a grown-up about the whole thing and just eat a little bit of cabbage every day with lunch or dinner. Cabbage is good for me, right? Full of vitamins and fiber? Yes, it is, so I keep plugging away at these leftovers, wondering if I’m going to cave and just throw the rest of them away. So far, I’m still holding out for a strong finish.
Then I made my first valiant attempt at cooking okra—fresh from a local farm, no less!—and got a little too slap-happy with the curry powder. There are few things worse than overseasoning a dish. Instead of tasting the lush, exotic flavors of India, I tasted the gritty powder of excess spice with nowhere to go.
Back to the question at hand: the leftover issue. I have an answer, and it goes by the name cornbread. A toasty, buttery hot skillet of cornbread is midweek’s answer to a dinner composed mostly of leftovers. Fresh bread is, to me, one of the best homemade foods to make dinner feel like a special occasion. There’s just nothing quite like a wedge of cornbread, still sighing with the oven’s sweet breath, to accompany a bowl of leftover soup, a main-dish salad made up of bits and bobs from the crisper, or a tangle of cooked vegetables, perhaps with a side of beans and a few slices of cheese. Cornbread makes everything taste fresh again, which is exactly what I’m looking for on a Thursday night, especially one where the curry powder got the best of me.
Today’s recipe makes a very different type of cornbread from any I’ve ever made before. For one thing, it’s an almost-pure cornmeal cornbread—just two tablespoons of flour are added to an entire cup of cornmeal. Its texture is a little chewy and quite nubbly. It tastes surprisingly buttery, given that it’s made with just two tablespoons of butter (or oil, if you insist), and a little eggy. It’s also quite a bit thinner than my standard cornbread. Altogether, what it reminds me of most is a thick cornmeal pancake. Fresh out of the oven, a wedge of it will make a dinner plate very happy. But I think its ultimate destiny is that of pancake stand-in. Tonight I made a quick blueberry sauce on the stovetop, poured it over a wedge of White River Cornbread, and topped it with a generous scoop of maple ice cream. The hot blueberry sauce soaked into the bread just a little, while the ice cream melted into little purple pools of creamy sweetness. The bread was a tad on the thick side for this dessert—next time I’ll slice my wedge in half horizontally so I can eat more blueberry sauce and ice cream with each bite of bread. But that might not be before I try it with sauted apples and an extra drizzle of maple syrup. I’m not sure what I like more: this cornbread’s flavor or its versatility. Maybe I need to bake another skillet’s worth to decide. Maybe you should bake one too.
Happy cornbread-baking, friends!
White River Cornbread
Adapted slightly from The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes 6-8 wedges
Few things strike fear into my heart like the following words: “Heat the oil (or any kind of fat) until smoking.” I am petrified of burning things, to the point that I tend to undercook rather than risk burning dinner. So when I saw that Crescent’s instructions for this recipe call for heating the butter until smoking, I just couldn’t go through with it. Burnt butter is a bad, bad thing.
Instead, I tried to stay loyal to the spirit of the recipe while sidestepping the smoking butter issue: I prep the skillet with its lump of butter and mix together the dry and wet ingredients. Then the skillet goes into the oven, the butter melts, and everything gets nice and hot. The skillet is probably not as hot as the original recipe would make it, but at least the butter isn’t burnt! Then I finish assembling the batter, scrape it into the skillet, and everything gets baked.
There’s one more endearing quality about this cornbread: its baking time is quite short—twenty minutes, max. That’s nice if you’re trying to pull together dinner in a hurry, or you’ve got an episode of Grey’s Anatomy you’d rather watch with cornbread in hand, not still in the oven, baking.
2 tbsp. butter or oil (I used butter)
1 cup cornmeal
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup yogurt mixed with 1/4 cup water OR 1 cup buttermilk (use yogurt or buttermilk that’s got some fat in it—this cornbread is quite lean otherwise)
1) Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place the 2 tbsp. of butter or oil in a ten-inch cast-iron skillet.
2) In a medium-sized mixing bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3) In a small mixing bowl, beat together the eggs and diluted yogurt or buttermilk. Set aside.
4) Place the skillet inside the oven. Let the oven heat melt the butter inside the skillet and get the skillet nice and hot. When the butter has melted, carefully swirl it around inside the pan, take it out of the oven, and proceed quickly to the next step.
5) Working quickly, pour about a tablespoon of the melted butter into the wet ingredients. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry, mixing just until everything is moistened. Do not overmix.
6) Pour or scrape the batter into the hot skillet. Pop the skillet into the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch.
7) Place the cornbread under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top. If your bread freckles with brown spots, rather than browning evenly, don’t worry—it’ll still taste great.
8) Remove cornbread from the oven. Serve wedges hot from the skillet.