Heat in a heavy skillet over medium heat:
1 tablespoon neutral oil such as safflower
Add and brown well on all sides, about 2 minutes per side:
Much is made of authenticity in food. We speak of "authentic" ethnic food as if we have some idea of what we're talking about--as if we could tell the difference between the real thing and an impostor if both were presented to us simultaneously. Has a blind taste test been conducted on authenticity? If so, I would like to know the results.
To my mind, it only makes sense that there is a great deal of flux in what we call authentic. Is there a definitive cassoulet recipe? Paella? It would stand to reason that the peasants who invented these foods and their analogs would have used what they had on hand. Further, what they had on hand must have changed month to month, season to season.
I suppose what I dislike about the term "authentic" is that it implies not only a right and a wrong way of doing things but also that what is authentic is better than something inauthentic. Or that the authentic way of doing something is categorically superior to any other way. But problems arise here. What if one creates a new take on an authentic recipe or dish, and the new is tastier than the old? Do we still look down on it--if only a little--for being inauthentic? Or what about all those dishes--like kedgeree or Country Captain--that are inauthentic in and of themselves; plays on another cuisine that are neither of that cuisine nor the one that cobbled the dish together?
Take cornbread as a lesson in authenticity and its deceptiveness.
Cornbread is a matter of constant debate. A few months ago, when a very gussied up cornbread recipe appeared on the NY Times website, the comment thread was awash with vitriol and disbelief. Tamper with authentic cornbread?! How dare you!
I'll be honest. As a southerner, I tend to think that I am entitled to a word on cornbread. I grew up in a family of talented southern cooks, all of whom make cornbread. The catch is that all of them make it slightly differently.
My grandmother on my father's side adds corn kernels. My nana--my mother's mother--uses mayonnaise instead of oil and eggs, and her cornbread is very thin and crusty. My own mother always made a much richer, more tender version with whole corn, cottage cheese, and plenty of eggs and oil.
This would all be somewhat problematic if I believed in the doctrine of authenticity. Whose cornbread would I call authentic? Or would I call none of them authentic? These women are all "authentic" southern cooks. To give only one, or none of them, a gold star for authenticity seems disingenuous. And what about all those good folks who add sugar to their cornbread? Are they totally off base? Cracklin's or no cracklin's? Bacon grease or oil? Cast iron skillet or baking pan?
My thinking is that it's a matter of taste. So sue me.
My favorite cornbread is simple--cornmeal (yellow or white), buttermilk, eggs. Bacon grease in a hot cast iron skillet. I love it dark and crusty on the outside with a tender golden crumb--a contrast I believe can only be achieved with cast iron. My go-to recipe is JOY's Southern Corn Bread.
I've added ramps just for kicks (also: we're trying to go through them before we leave town next week--no good coming home to a super stinky fridge), but the recipe would be the same without them. You could also use onions instead if you want that extra bit of flavor.
Preheat the oven to 450°F with a heavy 9-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron, in the oven. You can also use an 8-inch square glass baking dish if you don't have a cast iron pan, but you don't need to preheat the oven with the glass pan in it.
Whisk together thoroughly in a large bowl:
1 3/4 cups cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Whisk until foamy in another bowl:
2 large eggs
1 1/2 to 2 cups buttermilk*
Add to the dry ingredients and whisk just until blended. Remove the skillet from the oven and add:
1 tablespoon bacon fat, lard, oil, or vegetable shortening
If using ramps or onions, add them now. Briefly sauté them until wilted or translucent. Use up to half a cup of minced onions or ramps.
Pour the batter into the pan all at once.
Bake until the top is browned and the center feels firm when pressed, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve immediately from the pan, cut into wedges or squares, with:
Leftovers, though dry, are nice enough if wrapped in foil and rewarmed in a low oven. You can also put a crumbled slice of cornbread in a glass and cover with buttermilk--my favorite way to eat leftover cornbread.
*If you are using a stone-ground cornmeal, which is to say coarser, you may want to use the larger amount of buttermilk. If using a normal, store-bought, finely ground cornmeal, use the smaller amount. Either way, start with 1 1/2 cups and go from there. You want the batter to be fairly thin (i.e. not as thick as pancake batter) but not soupy.