No. 14 & 15: Skillet Cornbread & Black Bean Soup

I am a proud 4-H alum. I can still recite the entire pledge with the hand motions.

I pledge my head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

Horses initially brought us to the local 4-H club. They have a whole curriculum of learning around the Horse Project, as well as clinics and horse shows.

Sunny and I

(Sunny and I at the State Fair in 1996. I rocked that Showmanship outfit.)

I would have happily only focused on horses, but my mother saw the need for me to branch out and learn some other applicable skills.

She gave me a choice. Cooking or sewing. But it was clear, I had to add one of them to my list of projects.

Cooking seemed like the less of two evils. Even at 10 years of age, I had the wisdom to know I'd have to learn to feed myself eventually.

Competition in Cooking

Before there was ever Iron Chef, The Taste, or Chopped ... there was 4-H cooking competition. Kids against other kids (dramatic Hunger Games music in the background).

This is the case for all projects. You enter something from your year-long body of work at the County Fair (rockets for rocketry, photos for photography, a pair of pants you created for sewing), where it is judged and assigned a ribbon. A blue or purple ribbon means you are headed to the State Fair (which is an amazing feeling).

Side note: Most believe the blue ribbon is the best. Actually, a purple ribbon denotes Grand Champion. Purple trumps blue. Shocking, I know.

Bacon skillet cornbread was the first purple ribbon I ever received at the State level.

Skillet Cornbread

This batter is from Pioneer Woman with a few small tweaks. I held true to the savory goodness of the award-winning (too much?) original by using bacon for the grease. There is simply nothing better.

Ingredients

3 large strips of bacon
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup buttermilk*
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup melted butter*

*Never made your own buttermilk? Try it!

*I used a tad less than 1/4 cup butter. Something like 1/6 cup, if you can measure that.

To make

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Combine cornmeal, flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Stir together.

Combine the buttermilk and milk in a small bowl and add the egg. Stir together with a fork. Add the baking soda and stir.

Pour the milk mixture into the dry ingredients. Use a hand mixer to combine.

In a small bowl, melt 1/4 cup butter (or use the grease). Slowly add melted butter to the batter, stirring until just combined.

Meanwhile, in an iron skillet, cook the bacon. When bacon is crispy, remove. Turn skillet so bacon leavings coat the inside thouroughly. Pour off any extra grease, there should be no pooling.

Bacon

Pour the batter into the hot skillet. Spread to even out the surface. Batter should sizzle.

Cook on stovetop for 1 minute, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Edges should be crispy.

Black Bean Soup

I love black bean soup in the winter. It "sticks to your ribs" as my mother and grandmother would say. Exactly what you need on a chilly night.

Ingredients

3 slices bacon or 3 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeno, diced
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
32-36 ounces chicken or vegetable stock*
1 15-16 ounce can petite diced tomatoes in juice
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
2 bay leaves
1 pound dried black beans*
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, lightly chopped
Sour cream, for garnish
Grated cheddar, for garnish

*I prefer reduced-sodium chicken stock because I think it adds more depth of flavor. We also like a very thick black bean soup, so feel free to add more stock throughout cooking to make this more 'soupy.'

*You can use beans from the can and simmer everything for just 45 minutes or so to save time.

To make

Cover beans with cold water by 3 inches in a bowl and soak at room temperature at least 8 hours. Drain well in a colander.

(Forgot to soak your beans all day? Learn how to power soak any type of bean here.)

Cook bacon or pancetta in a large heavy pot over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until golden and mostly cooked. About 5 minutes.

Add onion, bell pepper, garlic, jalapeno, cumin and chili powder and sauté, stirring frequently, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes.

Add beans, chicken broth, bay leaves, salt and pepper, and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally.

Beans

Simmer until beans are very tender, about 2 - 2 1/2 hours. Remove bay leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste at end of cooking.

Serve soup topped with sour cream, chopped cilantro and cheese.

The results

I was still plating my beans and cornbread when I heard Mr. McCormick exclaim, "Babe!! This cornbread is truly awesome!"

This is rare folks, he doesn't give yelled out praise lightly. It made my year.

Cornbread

This tasted as good as it looks. The bacon and crispy edges give this cornbread a smokey quality that is divine. It was wonderful with the soup, but would be incredible with barbeque.

I don't have a great bean photo because I piled so many toppings on my plate that you can barely see anything below the cheese.

Plate

You can always finish your soup with an immersion blender to make it more creamy, but I love the texture of whole beans.

The soup simmering for 2 hours means that this isn't a great weeknight dish, but it brought all the flavors together in the best way. And the time gave Mr. McCormick and I a nice night at home just chatting away and catching up after a long week.

Check out a full index of recipes here
Send me your thoughts, comments and ideas at theresolvedcook@gmail.com