I am now officially – indisputably, incontrovertibly, indubitably – middle-aged.
And I don’t mean in the numerical sense; although since, at the time of brunching, I’m just a few weeks shy of my mid-thirties, that’s probably, technically, true. Nope, I mean in the attitudinal sense… In that (whisper it) I now do gardening. Like, for fun.
I remember a time – not so very long ago it seems – when gardening was the epitome of middle age-dom. I just couldn’t conceive of a scenario when I’d choose to weed, prune and water over… Well, just about anything, really. The sound of Alan Titchmarsh’s voice bored me to tears (I still maintain that Alan Titchmarsh is easy listening music made flesh), and a red Ranunculus sounded like a very painful condition indeed.
Now, however, few things give me greater pleasure than pottering about the garden on a weekend. These days I’m more likely to spend my Friday nights binge-watching Gardeners World in my PJs than binge-drinking vodka Cokes in a pair of heels. I bore my workmates with the litany of things one can compost (eggshells and loo rolls and hair and, somewhat disturbingly, urine). And I know my onions from the several other members of the allium family growing in my veg patch. See? Totally middle-aged.
Gardening, however, does have its benefits: like providing the perfect excuse for some al fresco eating on the first properly sunny day of the year – and working up the appetite for a hearty brunch, such as these Southern-inspired huevos rancheros.
Husband definitely approved of this week’s offering after what he considered one too many dainty, girly brunches (the chai-spiced crêpes on vintage china were, I think, a step too far). Indeed, one of the benefits of being married to someone from the Deep South is having the excuse to gorge on down-home, Lowcountry cookin’ on a somewhat regular basis: BBQ pork, shrimp and grits, sweet potatoes, collard greens… Mmm, hmm… But amidst all this mouth-watering Southern fayre there is one dish that rules supreme: the mighty cornbread.
My first taste of proper cornbread came in New Orleans (or should that be ‘N’awlins’?) way back in 2000. I was on a foodie quest to sample the perfect Creole cuisine and, after a couple of hours searching in the midday Louisiana heat, stumbled upon a little dive of a café, far away from the tourist traps of the French Quarter. I was the only non-native in the place (always a good sign) and the food they dished up was that Holy Grail of gastro-tourism: a mind-blowingly awesome and (crucially) authentic culinary experience. The Jambalaya was spicy, the pecan pie suitably decadent and the cornbread – oh, the cornbread – hot, crisp and buttery.
Now, making cornbread makes me feel like an honorary Southerner – quite a feat for someone born and raised in the North of England. I can’t help myself saying the word in an affected Southern drawl: “cowun burrayd”, pronounced with five syllables instead of the clipped British two. Until husband has to remind me that not everyone from the South talks like Forrest Gump. And that I sound like a knob.
To dial the Southernness up to an 11, I cook my cornbread in a cast iron skillet, a kitchen implement I confess scared me a bit at first. Another side effect of my mental middle aged-ness is that I’m becoming increasingly technophobic. And, in the case of my skillet, that apparently extends to the technology of the 1800s, as well as just about every product made by Apple (to this day I still only have about 50 songs on my iPhone because I can’t face the trauma of logging into iTunes to download more – but Little Mix improve on their 900th hearing, right?). There’s a knack to skillets which just seemed like a load of faff at first (faff being something I abhor). However, now I’ve finally mastered the art of skillet cuisine, nothing is more satisfying than cooking cornbread in one. Like being a cowboy on the range, a wanderer of the plains… Y’know, without having to deal without all that camping, horse-riding and other uncomfortable nonsense.
I came up with this brunch recipe as a way of using up leftover cornbread. All it needs is a quick toasting in the oven, before being Texed Mexed up with cheese, fried eggs, shop-bought salsa (feel free to make your own; I was just too busy pottering in the garden) and my favourite black beans. And there you have it – an al fresco brunch of Dixie deliciousness. Nothing better after a hard morning of mowing, raking and hoeing. No siree.
Skillet cornbread huevos
Serves up to 6 (or fewer if you’re using up leftover cornbread – once you’ve made the cornbread itself, the rest of the recipe is per portion)
For the cornbread (adapted, in method only, from this recipe from BBC Food):
4 tbsp butter
65g plain flour
1½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
35g caster sugar
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
Small bunch spring onions, finely chopped
3 medium eggs, beaten
160g whole milk (weigh rather than measure in a jug to get exactly the right amount)
Eggs – one per person
Grated cheddar cheese – a handful per person
Shop-bought fresh salsa
Black beans – cooked as for my ‘not so dirty huevos’
Sliced spring onions
26cm diameter (or thereabouts) cast-iron skillet
1. Make the cornbread in advance (NB if you’re not using a skillet, just follow the method in the original recipe). Preheat the oven to 200C and place the polenta, flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add the sugar, chilli and spring onions and stir well. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and milk. Gradually add the wet ingredients to the dry ones, and mix until combined.
2. Wash your skillet in hot water (don’t use washing-up liquid – detergent is like skillet Kryptonite) then set over a low heat until the skillet has completely dried. Add the butter to the skillet and allow to melt, using a pastry brush to grease the sides of the pan. Pour the cornbread mixture into the skillet then bake in the hot oven for around 20 minutes, until golden brown and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and brush the top of the cornbread with any excess butter that’s bubbled up around the sides. Leave to cool in the pan for a few minutes then turn out onto a wire rack. When completely cool, cut into six wedges.
3. To assemble your huevos rancheros, toast your cornbread wedges on one side only under a hot grill. Turn the cornbread over, sprinkle a handful of grated cheese over the untoasted side of each wedge, then put it back under the grill until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
4. While the cheese is melting, fry the eggs to your liking. Remove the cheesy cornbread from the oven and top each wedge with a fried egg. Top with black beans and salsa, and sprinkle with sliced spring onions before tucking in.