I’m still in the thick of the kitchen remodel, and a term paper- but my mom was requesting a polenta recipe- so I thought I would offer you this one embedded in an essay I wrote this term. Enjoy.
Cornmeal is a proper beginning for many meals whether simple or complex. The best kind, worth seeking out exclusively and establishing as a pantry staple, is stone-ground cornmeal. This key cereal is sometimes labeled as coarse-ground polenta or grits. Cornmeal can easily be transformed by additions, just as easily as it has been renamed. Its mythic history as maize, underscores its endless possibilities on the plate. Ancient Americans cultivated, preserved, and prepared this sacred cereal. When giving offerings to welcome newcomers to America their gift of corn was great. While it appeared simple, it was really complex. To the natives who presented it to early settlers, maize was rich with meaning. It was a connection to the land and their people: the ultimate taste of home. It still captures that flavor, not just to those who grew it first, but all those who tuck into a warm and creamy, humble bowl of maize.
Cooked cornmeal porridge is quintessentially comfort food. It was the embodiment of home to the Native Americans who knew it first, it is a foundational food to those who adopted it as their own in Northern Italy, and in the American South it is routine and ritual. Cornmeal mush, spoon bread, polenta, mamliga and grits are all really cooked cornmeal porridge by an assortment of names and slight variation of cooking. While their differences are slight, their effect is universally soothing. And with good reason, cornmeal—even good quality stone-ground cornmeal—is equally soothing to the pocketbook.
Cornmeal is economical; a bargain when a pound of organic coarse-grind cornmeal can be had for two to three dollars, and provide for several satisfying meals before the bag runs out. So naturally the thought of a soul satisfying meal at an everyman price can hardly be unappealing. I know it to be so. Reading MFK Fisher’s recipes for polenta and spoon bread in How to Cook a Wolf triggered my appetite and agreed with my head. I walked to kitchen in search of comfort. Graciously, it was there.
My pantry supply of the staple was ample—I had polenta in my near cooking future. Take a measure of cornmeal, and whisk into a large saucepot filled with four measures of salted water. Stir, heat, cover, and repeat until the slurry sets into a thick, pourable gold. Stir in a pat or so of butter, according to your desire and generosity. Dress with a robust tomato sauce, or to nestle a slowly braised osso bucco if the opportunity presents itself. (I particularly like the pairing of spicy, pan-seared sausages and grapes in a balsamic reduction against a mellow, creamy polenta.) Yet, really a simple dusting of nutty Parmesan or a chunk of pungent Gorganzola is often just enough gilding for the lily. Perfectly cooked polenta is perfection: simple enough, yet simply sublime when cooked properly. But I headed in another direction.
The supply of milk in my refrigerator was more liberal than my stores of cornmeal, and something had to be done about it. Grits it was. Like its Italian cousin, Southern-style grits are a stove top affair, but typically enriched with milk, rather than water alone. Unlike most polenta recipes that are geared toward savory toppings, sweet things have been welcomed to stir into warm bowls of morning mush. A bit of butter and maple syrup, sorghum or molasses greet morning bowls of comfort as readily as crisp cooked bacon, crumbled cheese and roasted chilies. I hold affection for each of them, but know how readily cornmeal porridge plays background to a variety of flavors outside for the usual fare. On this occasion I ventured outside the usual standards of toppings and technique.
I like to brave the risk of lumps by reversing the order of operation; first toast the cornmeal in a dry saucepot over medium heat, and then when the warm fragrance of the grains begins to fill the air, I slowly pour the milk into the pot while furiously whisking it all together. The risk is rewarded as cornmeal takes on additional flavor depth from the initial toasting. I then finish the process with unusual flourish: I swirl almond butter or meal and freckle the grits. Then garnish with blueberries. Winter is hardly an excuse to pay exorbitant amounts for a carton of blueberries that are in season several thousand miles south of the equator; rummage the freezer. Add the frozen jewels directly or make a quick sauce of them with a bit of lemon and honey. Swirl them in vigorously and turn the contents of your bowl violet or dot gently, as you wish. Finish with a bob of crème fraiche or a splash of sweet cream. Eat immediately.
Yes, you could wait to eat your grits, polenta, spoon bread, mush or whatever name you call your cornmeal porridge by—but if don’t, you won’t be sorry. You can unlock the secret second life of cooked cornmeal. The once pourable, spoon-able creation solidifies as it cools. Slice the cornmeal loaf and serve it in its elegant molded shape. Or crisp cook it in skillet with a bit of oil or butter and what was once a simple solitary texture takes on a second. Cook both sides of the slice in the hot fat, making the exterior irresistibly crunchy and sealing in the creamy goodness of the swollen cornmeal grains inside. Perfection. Top your new work of art as you please. Serve and be soothed, immediately.