Were you aware that corn is one of the quite few foods that originated in the Americas (as well as cranberries, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and tomatoes, and if I’m not mistaken, blueberries)? Corn has taken over the country, and if you are at all astute when it comes to current food issues, has also taken over our diets. There are estimates floating around that up to 80 per cent of the average meal is made of corn and corn derivatives. Unbelievable? Read Omnivore’s Dilemma or see Food Inc. But I’m not here (today, anyway) to harp on corn or on all the sub-par uses of corn or on the power structure that under-girds our food sources. I’ll leave that for another blogger. I am here, instead, to discuss the legitimate uses of a satiating, healthy, highly available and economic food: corn meal.
Now there are differences between corn meal, polenta, and grits, as well as the Latino variations of corn flour and masa. Although, my experience is that corn meal can be used in just about anything that calls for polenta and even grits, but–especially if you are Southern–they do lack a certain “grittiness.” Whether you decide to stash three or four different grinds of corn in the cupboard or just have the ever-economical corn meal on hand, you can easily make what I use corn meal to make on a regular basis: corn pancakes, polenta, corn muffins, corn porridge (or grits), and our favorite: corn bread (which is a “quick bread,” and that means it takes no yeast and can be whipped up for dinner without too much forethought).
But today I am going to give you a couple recipes for polenta. It’s easy and hearty and nourishing. Leftovers can be molded (into a log, usually, before refrigerating), sliced, and made into little polenta pizzas (kids love this, just saute them until golden and then bake topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella) or a polenta lasagna.
Polenta is easy to become creative with. We generally serve it creamy and topped with an easy protein and a salad. It works with chili and it works with sausages. Following is a recipe for a standard polenta with black beans (a classic) and a more creative polenta. Polenta is also served frequently a la bolognese (so, like, brown some ground meat and stir with marinara).
POLENTA WITH BLACK BEANS
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat/medium-high in a saucepan.
- Saute 1 chopped onion until tender.
- Drain and dice a small jar pimento. Add, along with 1/4 cup white wine (try Trader Joe’s for great-priced, great-tasting wines), 2 cloves pressed garlic, and 1 teaspoon oregano. Cook another minute.
- Add two cups canned/cooked beans to the pan with a little bean broth or water, cover, and continue to simmer while making the polenta.
- Combine 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth and 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary and bring to a boil.
- Immediately lower heat until broth is at a very low boil or consistent simmer.
- Whisking constantly, slowly add 1 cup cornmeal or dry polenta. Continue whisking until it becomes a porridge. If it seizes (you’ll know), add more broth or water and keep whisking. (I also take a taste at this stage to make sure the corn meal or polenta is actually cooked through, and not too toothsome from the quick cook. Real chefs can take a long time slowly cooking polenta to perfection.)
- Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup grated monterrey jack cheese and 1 tablespoon butter. Taste for salt and pepper.
- Serve topped with the beans.
*For a more versatile and standard polenta, omit the pimento, possibly the onion, and change the herbs to taste, and then use parmesan cheese instead of the jack. For a creamier polenta, substitute milk or cream for a 1/2 cup or cup of broth.
- Bring 2 cups chicken or veggie stock, 2 1/2 cups whole milk, and 2 tablespoons butter to a boil in a saucepan.
- Reduce to a simmer and whisk in 1 1/2 cups dry polenta.
- Continue whisking until it becomes a porridge. If it seizes (you’ll know), add more broth or water and keep whisking. (See added directions above.)
- Whisk in 1/2 cup grated Asiago or Parmesan (which you bought in a block to save money, and never in a can), 1 can pumpkin or butternut squash puree (not the large one), 1/4 t nutmeg, 1/2 t cinnamon, pepper and salt to taste, and 3 T honey.