As a seasoned summer CSA subscriber at the East Nashville Farmers Market, I remember the very first box I received that was filled with a variety of peppers in all shapes and sizes and spilling with golden tassels of summer’s finest sweet corn. I came directly home and picked through my wonders, curious about each individual pepper. I found that each one had its own unique flavor profile and heat level, and was eager to use them all in a pepper-packed dish. That day, I created my first skillet of Five Pepper Southern Cornbread from the peppers, onions, and fresh sweet corn I received from my local farmers at the East Nashville market—and I still make it the same way I did more than seven years ago.
Like most proper (and indulgent) Southern cornbread recipes, I began with two incomparable ingredients: bacon and a ten-inch cast-iron skillet. I fried approximately one-quarter to one-half pound of thin-sliced bacon in my skillet and reserved the fat in a measuring cup equaling approximately one-half cup (the leftover fried bacon can be used for lunch on BLTs with farm-fresh tomatoes, or crumbled into your cornbread batter). This fat is traditionally used in the bottom of your skillet to create a savory golden crust, and also in the batter for flavor. However, I feel this recipe (and cornbread, in general) is just as delicious without bacon, and the fat can be substituted for vegetable oil if you are inclined.
Once my bacon fat was rendered, I began to pick through all the different peppers that are found at the East Nashville Farmers Market. From the sweetest bells and mildest bananas, to the warmer poblanos and long horns, to the hotter cayennes and jalapenos, I had quite the variety to choose from. I chose a mixture of two sweet, a warm, and two hot, and diced them all small: a thick-walled bell, a mild banana, a crunchy poblano, and a jalapeno and cayenne. I also grabbed a few spoonfuls of pickled jalapenos from my refrigerator, just as I did in my first pepper cornbread experiment. I also diced one bunch of spring onions (or one small onion). Then I heated my oven to 425 degrees and began prepping my vegetables by chopping them all into a small dice—including the seeds.
Next, I grabbed a new larger skillet and added one-fourth cup of the liquid bacon fat to it and all my onions, which equaled about one and one-half cup. I added a pinch of salt and sautéed on med-high heat for three or so minutes or just until they began to soften. Then I added all of my chopped peppers and sautéed until the vegetables were soft and slightly brown (approx. fifteen to twenty minutes).
Once fully cooked, I transferred my soften vegetables to a bowl to cool and began to shuck my corn in a separate bowl. Once all outer leaves and silks had been removed, I held each stalk upside down in a large bowl and removed the kernels with a sharp knife. (Don’t forget to flip your knife over to the dull, backside of the blade and scrape-in all the starchy, sweet goodness!)
At this point, I returned to my cast-iron skillet added three tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat back into the bottom (plus a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil, just for good measure)and placed it in my heated oven to ensure a nice sizzle for when I poured in my batter.
While my skillet heated, I combined my sautéed peppers and onions with the freshly scraped corn, adding a good pinch of both salt and pepper. Then I chopped and crumbled-in approx. six slices of my fried bacon and mixed well (you can leave it out if you like).
In a separate bowl, I began my batter by cracking two large eggs and beating well. I added one and three-fourth cup of buttermilk, two tablespoons sugar, one-half teaspoon salt, one tablespoon of the bacon fat, and my corn and peppers mixture. I mixed well. Then I folded in two and one-half cups of white buttermilk cornbread mix until just moistened (the batter was still very lumpy).
Once just combined, I carefully removed my hot skillet from the oven and scraped in my cornbread batter with a rubber spatula, being extra careful not to splash any of the burning-hot bacon grease! I smoothed out my batter, and, for old time’s sake, tossed on four slices of orange-rind muenster cheese, just as I did the first time I created this recipe. Then I popped the heavy skillet back into my oven on the middle rack and let it bake for twenty-five minutes.
Once my cornbread was golden brown, I removed it and rubbed with a good knob of butter and let cool for fifteen minutes until it was safe to invert onto a plate. I flipped it over onto a cutting board and cut a slice that was a mile high, chocked-full of peppers, onions, and sweet corn, and equipped with the perfect Southern golden brown crust. I traditionally enjoy a slice of this hearty, peppery cornbread with a sliced heirloom tomato from the East Nashville Farmers Market, a little salt and pepper, and nothing more. Spicy, savory perfection—still to this day.
Five Pepper Southern Cornbread
1/4 to 1/2 pound bacon, or 1/2 cup liquid bacon fat (can substitute 1/2 cup vegetable oil)
1 medium bell pepper
1 mild banana pepper
1 poblano pepper
1 jalapeno pepper
1 cayenne pepper
1/4 cup sliced pickled jalapenos
1 bunch spring onions or 1 small yellow or white onion
2 ears fresh sweet corn
2 1/2 cups white cornmeal mix (I like the buttermilk kind)
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cup buttermilk
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 slices muenster, cheddar, or any cheese you like (optional)
2 tablespoons butter (otional)