There are certain dishes that call me back to the hills and hollows, that recall the trickle of banjo and dulcimer music wafting on a sultry mountain breeze. The wail of a fiddle breaking fancy, the cry of crows flying low over a newly planted field of warm red clay, the smell of newly cut hay and the soft lowing of cows in the barn.
All of these sights, sounds and smells come home to roost in my psyche when I cook pinto beans and cornbread.
We ate lots of dried beans when I was growing up, in part because they were cheap and filling, but also because we loved them. Buff colored navy beans with pink flecks of ham, or creamy baby lima beans cooked with bacon were favorites, but the beans that everyone acknowledged as being a classic on the West Virginia table were savory cedar-brown pinto beans.
And pinto beans -always- were served with cornbread.
It was a necessity, to have cornbread with pinto beans.
And everybody cooked their beans a little bit differently, but there was one rule that everyone followed: pork had to be in the beans for them to be any good.
Some people used fatback. Others used jowl bacon. Some used pork belly or pig neckbones. I knew of some families who used trotters in their beans, and some folks just threw in some plain old breakfast bacon. Hambones were popular, though I dare say more folks threw those in with navy beans to make Bean and Ham Soup.
The poorest folks put in bacon grease that they’d saved up for however long.
We almost always used ham hocks, though Dad did like his with jowl bacon when he cooked up a pot of beans.
Ham hocks are cheap as anything–they are the part of the ham that is the shankbone with just some meat, skin and lots of fat on it. They are salty and smokey and make a really rich pot of beans, whether you cook them on the stove or in the slow cooker all day or you cook them for an hour or so in the pressure cooker. You cook them until the meat falls off the bones and the fat starts to dissolve into the bean broth, and there is nothing better than getting a little piece of the ham in a spoonful of beans. It was like a grace note at the end of a fiddle solo, a little fillip, a pretty extra bit that made your tongue want to get up and sing.
Other than pork, some folks put onions in their beans while they cooked. Onions and sometimes some peppers. I don’t know anyone who used garlic except my Aunt Nancy who’d sneak it in on account of her being Syrian, and a great believer in garlic. But she used a light hand and sneaked it in–pretty much the only other seasoning most folks would use was salt and pepper, maybe some onion and now and again, someone would get extra daring and throw in a bay leaf.
Oh, but none of us really cared, because the pork, beans, salt and pepper were so tasty on their own.
And even if you didn’t season them much when you cooked them, we often put diced up raw onions on top of the soupy beans before we ate them. The crunchy raw onions gave a contrasting texture and their sharp flavor complemented the rich, earthy flavor of the beans. And of course, when ramps were in season, we sliced them up and put them on top.
Some folks, like my Dad, ate the beans dry, drained of their thick, rich juices, but a lot of folks preferred to eat them out of a bowl, swimming in broth. I am one of the latter folks–I reckon people called pinto beans “soup beans” for a reason. Besides–the juice was full of flavor–I always thought of drained beans as being somehow naked and very bland without thier rich clothing of smokey broth.
I think that dried beans came into the Appalachian tradition from the Native Americans, most like the Cherokee Nation, who had a whole passel of recipes using them in ways that went beyond soups and stews. They made bean dumplings, fritters and breads that were very popular and which became traditions among some white families who had married into the Nation or who were decendants of the Cherokee.
How exactly cornbread came to be partnered with pinto beans in West Virginian cuisine, I am not rightly certain. Part of it had no doubt to do with the fact that cornbread was the default bread of much of southern Applachian hillfolk–folk grew and ground their own corn, but had to pay cash money for wheat flour, and sometimes they couldn’t afford it.
Another possibility is that it might have been the Cherokee influence at work again. Beans and corn are both New World natives and just as the Cherokee had lots of imaginative recipes featuring beans, they cooked even more dishes with corn and its derivative products such as cornmeal and hominy grits. It is possible that the white settlers picked up the idea of eating soup beans with cornbread from the Cherokee.
What I do know is this–whether the settlers or the Native Americans knew it, the combination of corn with beans is a highly nutritious one that creates a complete protein. That means that all the essential amino acids that are necessary for human life are present in that combination of foods. No one plant product contains all the amino acids that are the building blocks of muscle in our bodies–only animal protein has them all in one place.
So, while the folks, brown, white and red, who lived in the Applachian mountains may not have known all about amino acids and how to combine plantstuffs in order to have a balanced diet, they were doing it anyway, probably because the food was easily grown, cheap, filling, and was seen to be nutritious. I say seen to be nutritious because generation after generation of people ate it with no ill effect–which of course, is how traditional staple foods come to be that way. If something isn’t nutritious enough to sustain life, people don’t pass it down to the next generation, generally because they don’t live long enough to have some kids to pass it down to.
But, for whatever reason, pinto beans and cornbread have been passed down through the years to become a classic in the West Virginia Appalachian cuisine that exists today, and now and again, when I hanker for a taste of home, I go and cook up some.
Except, since it is my kitchen, and I don’t feel the need to stick completely with tradition, I gussy my beans and cornbread up a little bit. Since pinto beans are such a tradition in the Southwestern desert regions, and since I like chiles and spices, I tend to cook my beans less like a hillbilly and more like a cowgirl. Because I like the way beer tastes with beans, I add that to the cooking liquid, and of course, I throw in chiles and cumin and garlic and onion, too. I have never known chiles, onions or garlic to make any bean taste bad, and cumin improves everything except coffee and dessert.
Oh, and breakfast cereal. It doesn’t taste too good in that, either.
As for my cornbread, I like to bake it in cast iron cornstick pans, just like my Mom and Grandma did. That is the end of the similarity, though–I add extra goodies to my cornsticks, too. Like cinnamon, extra sugar, chiles and roasted corn kernels.
And I have yet to have a complaint.
So, that is what we had for dinner tonight–I woke up this morning with crows and dulcimers in my dreams and the scent of damp clay in my memory, and I knew I had to cook us up a pot of beans.
Which I did, though I did have one thought as I poured the beer into the pot just before I put the beans in–
will God strike me down for using kosher beer brewed by very nice Jewish boys in New York in a dish that not only has bacon grease in it but a ham hock? Will the Almighty smite me, or just shake His head and say, “Oy–leave it to a shicksa?”
Fancified Cowgirl Pinto Beans
2 tablespoons bacon drippings or olive oil
1 large onion, or 3 small ones, sliced thinly
5 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 bay leaves
pinch of dried Mexican or regular oregano
black pepper to taste
1 whole chipotle en adobo
1 bottle lager beer
1 smoked ham hock (or if you want to be healthy, some smoked turkey wings will do)
1 1/2 pounds dried pinto beans picked over, rinsed and drained
1 quart vegetable broth or water
1/2 quart chicken broth or stock or water
salt to taste
diced yellow onion or sliced scallion for garnish
Melt bacon drippings (or heat olive oil) over medium heat in the bottom of your pot or pressure cooker. Add onions and cook, stirring, until they are a medium golden brown. Add garlic, cumin, bay leaves, oregano, black pepper, and chipotle, and keep stirring, until the garlic is golden, the onions are a rich brown and everything smells really nice.
Pour in the beer, and allow most of the alcohol to boil off. Add the ham hock, beans and the broths or water and bring to a boil.
If you are using a regular pot and intend to cook this all day, turn the heat down to low, cover the pot and go off and read a book, wash your dog, write an essay, weed the garden or clean the house. Check back every hour or so and stir the beans. If the liquid runs low, add more water or beer. If you want to reduce the liquid, partially uncover the pot.
If you are using a pressure cooker, bring the beans to a boil, close and lock the lid, bring it up to full pressure, and turn the heat down to medium low to low. Adjust heat to keep the pressure up and the lid locked, and cook it under full pressure for about 22-25 minutes. You can either allow the pressure to gradually release on its own–in my experience, this leads to a thicker, richer broth–or you can quick release the pressure following the manufacturer’s guidelines for your pressure cooker.
Taste your beans, and make certain they are done. They should be soft, but still whole. Salt to taste; with the ham hock and bacon drippings, you probably will not need to add much salt. If you want the beans to be spicier than they are, smash up the chipotle into the broth.
Before serving, fish out the ham hock and the bay leaves. If you want, you can shred the meat from the hock and put it back into the beans. Or, you can be your dog’s best friend and give her the hock.
Serve with diced yellow onion (Vidalias are quite popularly used for this these days, though my Dad prefers plain old sharp yellow onions on his) or sliced scallions on top.
1 cup stoneground yellow cornmeal
1 1/4 cup flour
¾ cup raw sugar
2 teaspoon. baking powder
1 chipotle en adobo, minced
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
dried ground chipotle to taste (start with 1/8 teaspoon)
the kernels from one ear roasted corn
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 1/4 cups milk
2 cast iron cornstick pans
canola oil spray
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Put your clean, dry cornstick pans into the oven to preheat.
Mix together dry ingredients including the chipotle en adobo and corn kernels, which yes, I know, are not technically dry. But they are not liquid, so work with me.
Mix together your liquid ingredients, including the egg.
When your oven is preheated and the cornstick pans are hot, stir the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients to make a thick batter.
Using a ladle, pour batter into the cornstick pans almost up to the rims of the corn-shaped depressions. The pans should sizzle–this is making a crisp crust on your cornsticks.
Put them into the oven and bake for about 8-10 minutes, or until your cornsticks are puffy and browned.
Remove from oven and with a thin spatula or table knife, flip the sticks out of the pan, and wrap them in a towel to keep warm. If you have any batter left, reheat a pan, spray it and repeat the process until all batter is used up.
This will make around 21 cornsticks, which is enough for 4-6 people, depending on how much they eat. With my friends, I double the recipe.
They swear I put crack in these, but as you can see, I do not.
If you want, you can add fresh chiles to this recipe as well. I like to use fresh Thai or serrano chiles mixed with the chipotle. This really adds a serious kick to them.
You can also slip about a teaspoon of vanilla extract into the batter–it goes well with the chile flavor.
For the roasted corn–I used a leftover ear of corn we cooked on the grill. It had lots of nice browned kernels. You can broil corn on the cob, too. And if you don’t have any grilled corn laying in your fridge, make some! The next time you grill, throw some ears of corn on the fire. We shuck them completely, and baste them with melted butter then throw them on with whatever else we are cooking. Zak turns them a few times and might baste them once or twice and takes them off after they are nice and toasty brown. If you do extras, then you have leftovers, which means you can cut the kernels off and use them in cornsticks. Or salsa. Or salads or chowder or whatever sounds good to you at that moment.
If you don’t have cornstick pans, you should, but I understand if you don’t. This is also good baked in a cast iron skillet–follow the same procedure with preheating it to make a nice crispy crust, and spray it lightly with canola oil. Pour in all the batter, and bake between 20-30 minutes until brown on top and a broomstraw inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Now–you can serve these with butter–and that is really good, especially when they are hot. But when you eat them with pinto beans, the way to do it is to spoon up some beans and broth, and take them, then have a bite of cornstick. And then use the cornstick to sop up some bean broth, then repeat the following procedure as many times as you need to until you aren’t hungry anymore.
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