I was about to make chili, but realized that chili is just an excuse to make cornbread. And a good cornbread can be a meal in itself. Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different recipes and found that the key to flavor is good-quality cornmeal and a recipe that calls for a high ratio of cornmeal to wheat flour.
The best cornmeal comes from stone-ground field corn, the fresher the better. Several Minnesota millers are producing delicious cornmeal that actually tastes like corn. Take Sunrise Flour Mill of North Branch and Whole Grain Milling of Welcome, for example. Both companies mill a coarse cornmeal that bakes up into cornbread with a sweet, corn aroma and texture that has a nice sturdy crunch.
The recipe I rely on comes from the Madeline Island Historical Cookbook, found in the church tag sale years ago. It’s enriched with browned butter, and a lot of it, the result of a happy mishap. I’d forgotten about the butter I’d put in the pan in the oven to melt until that lovely toasty fragrance of butter browning announced itself. The browned butter enriches the nutty character of the cornmeal and is worth the little extra time and effort.
Once the butter has melted, as it cooks further, the milk solids develop a dark caramel color and roasty flavor. Unsalted butter works best, allowing the cook to control the amount of salt that goes into the batter. It makes a difference to use a good-quality local butter (such as Hope or Rochdale), which is delivered fresh to the dairy case each week.
Honey, as opposed to sugar, in this recipe helps to keep the cornbread moist and extend its freshness several days after it’s made. The natural acids in honey enhance the flavors of the cornmeal and lift up any added ingredients, too, such as the chopped jalapeño that gives this cornbread a fiery kick. Because of honey’s high fructose content, not much is needed to sweeten things up. Honey also provides more uniform baking and an evenly browned crust.
Cornbread served warm from the oven with a generous hunk of sharp Cheddar cheese and a dark green salad makes a fine, simple weeknight dinner.
The next day, we toasted slices of cornbread and piled them high with avocado, sliced tomato, and a good squeeze of lime. The leftover odds and ends? Toasted for croutons. Surprisingly simple; simply good.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.