By Elizabeth Gracen:
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I'm an Arkansas girl, and nothing makes me happier, more myself, than making a southern meal. I always miss Arkansas tomatoes in the summer more than anything. There is a terrific farmer's market every weekend where I live, and the tomatoes are pretty damned good, but they ain't Arkansas tomatoes.
So, if you start with the tomato, it makes sense to move on to black-eyed peas, red new potatoes, fried squash, cornbread, and Swiss chard or turnip greens. There's always fried chicken or sausages for my husband, but I don't need that to feel complete. I just need cornbread studded with jalapeños, a big slice of red onion, a little vinegar for the black-eyed peas . . . and maybe some sweat tea?
My family likes to make fun of me when I move into a southern-meal mode, but they eat every bite when I decide that it's time to cook it. The meal is easy to prepare, and the only recipe I use is one handed down from my Grandmother Grace's cookbook. My mamma makes it for me when I see her, and now I make it for my family at least twice a month—or more in the winter soup season. It's a never-fail recipe.
The tiny crockpot is my friend. It makes enough beans or peas for a good meal and a couple of leftover sides for the rest of the week. Even though I'm not a great gardener, I certainly love trying, and Swiss chard grows nicely in my lettuce box (made by my hubby for my birthday one year), but I'm the only one in my house who eats it. I gave up trying to get them to eat any type of cooked green a long time ago. Forget about turnip greens! Ha! That stuff is for southern girls!
So, we'll start with the black-eyed peas. The farmer's market will sometimes have fresh ones (what a luxury), but most of the time I do a quick-soak technique by bringing dried black-eyed peas to a boil and letting them sit for an hour. When the time is up, I drain them and put them in the tiny crockpot and add fresh water with a couple of teaspoons of Better Than Bouillon for added flavor. I add half an onion cut in two, some fresh-ground herbs (from my garden, so it's a mix of oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, and sage), and a couple of crumbled dried chili peppers from the garden—one of the only things that the bugs don't touch. Put the lid on and cook on low all day or on high for about 3 hours or until tender.
Wash a bunch of Swiss chard and chop the stems and leaves. Sauté the other half of the onion, sliced, with a clove of garlic or two along with the chard stems. Add a crumbled dried chili pepper and cook until softened. Then, add the leaves and really give it a stir, combining all the ingredients. Chard doesn't take long to cook and tastes better the longer it sits, so I usually make it first and reheat it right before it's time to serve. I always drizzle a capful of white vinegar on top when I'm ready to eat.
If I'm feeling industrious, I'll fry yellow neck squash or one other typically southern dish, but as long as I have a good tomato, the black-eyed peas, chard, and cornbread will suit me just fine.
I'm not a great baker, but I've made the following cornbread recipe often enough that I don't even have to look at the recipe. It's delicious and perfect for a couple of meals or to cut in half and share with a friend or neighbor.
Grandma Grace's Cornbread
1 cup corn meal
1 cup flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
3 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
2 eggs, well beaten
1/12 cup buttermilk
Jalapeño slices (jarred)
Preheat oven to 435°.
Grease a cast-iron skillet with butter or mist the pan with cooking spray (I use olive oil spray).
Combine corn meal, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a bowl.
Melt the butter and add to another bowl along with the brown sugar to dissolve.
Add the egg and stir.
Add the buttermilk and stir to combine.
Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Don't over mix.
Pour the cornbread mixture into the cast-iron skillet.
Drain the jalapeño slices on a paper towel to dry. Gently stud the slices across the top of the cornbread mixture to make a pattern of your liking.
Bake for 25–30 minutes until lightly golden. Do not overcook the cornbread, or it will be too dry.
Remove from the oven and place a plate on the top of the pan to flip the cornbread onto a plate. Flip the bread onto the plate, jalapeño-side up.
Cut a pat of butter and slide it around the top of the cornbread and serve.
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