Saturday, June 12, 2010


Excellent Ingredient of the Week
When it comes to comfort food, a warm piece of cornbread with a pat of melting butter is perhaps the ultimate delicacy. It's a great accompaniment to chili, soups, or a tall glass of milk, and it's so easy to make that even if you just follow an instant mix, you will still get great results. But you can do so much more. Cooking with cornmeal requires no yeast or complex mixing procedures. It's a one-bowl, stir-together-and-bake situation. Available nationwide, cornmeal is an inexpensive ingredient with good nutritional value that is not only high in fiber but also rich in iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Over 7,000 years ago, Native Americans cultivated corn from an indigenous plant of Central America called teosinte, a wild grass still found in Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. By systematically cultivating these plants, the Maya and Aztec peoples turned this small plant into a viable crop, which they could harvest in bulk and then dry and save for the winter season. Farmers traveled with sacks of dried cornmeal that could be simmered with water to make a hot porridge while out in the fields.

Explorers from the New World took this versatile grain home with them and made it their own. Polenta, a classic Italian dish, is a hot savory pudding or mush often served instead of potatoes or pasta. It’s made on the stovetop and often combined with cheese to produce a velvety, rich, and creamy side dish. In Romania, a similar dish is known as Mamaliga; this thick pudding of cornmeal can be cut into triangles and is often served with sour cream. In my family, which is Hungarian in origin, we make a savory corn bread filled with farmer cheese and scallions called Fluden, which is eaten along with a stew or roast. That recipe is in the MOW archive as well as a great cornmeal biscotti recipe.

In America, the birthplace of cultivated corn and cornmeal, we make a variety of regional specialties. Johnnycakes are the skillet-fried cornmeal pancakes popular in the Midwest. Hush puppies, a classic Southern favorite, are delicious deep-fried cornmeal balls made with buttermilk and onions. In the Southwest, there are many varieties of cornmeal products, from green Chile jalapeño cornbread to blue corn tortillas. Tamales, a Mexican favorite served all over the Southwest, are made with a steamed cornmeal dough called masa, which is wrapped in a corn husk. There is even a national Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg Tennessee, which takes place in late April of each year.

You can buy locally ground cornmeal at the farmers market (a little expensive for my taste) or cheap cornmeal at the supermarket. Polenta is just coarse ground cornmeal. It comes white yellow or blue. So make some cornbread, but remember it dries out really fast so it's best to bake it the same day you are going to serve it.