My new favorite corn meal is a fabulous product I found on a long weekend trip to Arkansas last fall at the War Eagle Mill in northwest Arkansas. The mill has an interesting history, and actually grinds the organic grains on the premises. It is located on a lovely river in one of the prettiest valleys I've ever seen. I couldn't resist picking up several of their small bags of different, organic whole grains, including a fetching bag of organic blue corn meal. I've had to order more over the Internet since then, we love it that much here at my house! The blue corn meal is so lovely. It is actually more purple than blue before baking, and looses a little of its gorgeous indigo color while baking, turning a little gray, but still beautiful nonetheless. Blue corn meal can be found through other providers, like Bob's Red Mill, and Arrowhead Mills, but I feel good about supporting a unique, small and somewhat local business that has made 'organic', 'natural' and 'traditional' their focus. You can order online here (there is no business or kickback affiliation here, just good old fashioned tooting of their horn).
My version is definitely a 'sweet' take on the traditional corn muffin or cornbread recipe. I've seen similar recipes with as little as two tablespoons of sugar. A happy medium might be 1/4 cup of sugar to start with. The sweetness level can be easily adjusted...simply take a finger-swipe taste of the batter before baking, and add more sugar as desired. I know that many traditionalists swear that the only way to make real cornbread or muffins is in cast iron cookware. Well, I most respectfully disagree and feel that a traditional heavy muffin pan provides just as lovely and tasty results.
Blue corn meal has a lovely, toothsome crunch that it somewhat nutty and naturally sweet. I don't know if it is just my imagination, given my obvious infatuation, but it seems like the flavor of the blue corn meal is a little more interesting than yellow or white, but yellow or white corn meal could be easily substituted if you don't have access to blue (in which case you have my deepest, heartfelt sympathy, really). I've added a smidge of whole wheat flour to the basic recipe, and the healthy aspects are enhanced by the use of olive oil. Buttermilk keeps these traditional and nutritious. I've successfully used both buttermilk and buttermilk power (with the appropriate amount of added liquid) with equal success. If you have a very strong flavored buttermilk, a half-and-half mix of buttermilk and regular milk works nicely. The end results are dreamy...a crunchy, chewy exterior surrounding a tender, moist interior. Some interesting additions would include whole corn kernels, green chilis, cheddar or a salty cheese such as feta. Or, some blueberries, blackberries or strawberries would take things more towards a dessert, brunch or sweet breakfast treat.
Blue corn also has some interesting health benefits, including the same anti-oxidant properties found in other blue foods such as blueberries, grapes and blackberries, and contains a form of selenium that is easily absorbed by the body. There are anecdotal stories of some people being able to tolerate blue corn better than the other yellow and white varieties. The history of corn and blue corn meal is fascinating as well. The blue corn grain was first cultivated by the Hopi Native Americans of the American Southwest and remains a feature in their traditional food. I'm a fan for all these health and tradition reasons, but mainly because of its glorious flavor!
These lovely gems provide a tasty accent to so many different kinds of meals. They are, of course, delicious with chili, and deservedly garner attention next to a hearty stew or bowl of soup, and are just as wonderful filling the 'bread' role for breakfast (or better yet breakfast for dinner) or with any southwest meal, like my Southwest Couscous. However you decide to feature them, you'll be happy you did, because they are quite simply delicious!
1 1/2 cup blue, yellow or white corn meal (I prefer blue, and a medium grind)
1/3 cup whole wheat flour, whole wheat pastry flour, spelt flour or any other whole wheat flour
2/3 cup unbleached all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup natural sugar (or 1/4 cup for less sweet bread)
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup buttermilk/1/2 cup milk, or 4 tablespoons buttermilk powder and 1 cup water)
1 egg (preferably organic, free-range)
1/4 cup olive oil or oil of preference
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Place all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and stir with a whisk or fork to blend well and remove any lumps. In another small bowl, beat the egg and oil briefly to emulsify. Carefully mix in the milk with the egg/oil mixture, then pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients. Stir with a fork until just moistened and no dry lumps are visible; do not overmix. Scoop into 12 muffin liners or pour into a greased 9x13 inch pan. Bake for approximately 15 to 20 minutes (my oven cooks the muffins perfectly at exactly 17 to 18 minutes) until just lightly browned and a toothpick stuck in the center comes out barely dry. You don't want to over-bake as the end result will be too dry. If making muffins, allow to cool in the pan for five minutes, then remove to a serving bowl or plate. Best if served warm. These keep very well and are great even a day or two later, rewarmed in the oven or microwave.