Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An ear of corn speaks volumes.

There are many things that are simply good as is, and you don't need a good reason to want them.  A bowl of steaming mashed potatoes, butter oozing over the creamy spuds.  A slice or two of toasted bread smeared with cream cheese and orange marmalade; fruity, rich and that satisfying crunch of the toast.  No matter the weather, no matter the season, or what holiday has rolled around; these are the things that make us feel good; there's that comfort food again.

Some of our most satisfying comforts come from a versatile vegetable, Corn.  Delicious fresh when grilled and coated with garlic or honey butter; or boiled in milk to bring out that rich sweetness.  Added to casseroles for the taste and crunch it can provide.  Around the world, corn is used in various forms to create a basic staple, or an awesome gourmet dish; and today I'm going to cover some of that.

Dried Corn – Cornmeal, Grits and Polenta
Cornmeal is corn ground to a fine consistency; used in baking, as in cornbread or hushpuppies; for dredging when frying, or the making of tortillas. Grits, a word that comes from the Old English “grytta” meaning a coarse meal and as the name implies, gritty; these are a staple in most Southern USA dishes; served for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. Polenta, what was known as a peasant food in Italy, was often cooked in a copper pot called a paiola; the grind is somewhere between the consistency of cornmeal and grits; used in baking, or a side dish similar to mashed potatoes.

Using the process of milling called “Stone Ground” retains some of the hull and germ of the corn, lending more flavor and nutrition to recipes. It is more perishable, but will store longer if kept in an air tight container and refrigerated.

Basic Grits

Grits have a creamy texture similar to porridge or moist oatmeal.  This can be eaten alone, as a side dish, or as part of a larger recipe.

4 cups water
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
1 cup stone ground grits


In a large saucepan, on high heat, bring the water, butter and salt to a boil. Gradually add the grits, return to a boil; reduce heat to low.  Cook the grits, stirring occasionally, so that they do not stick or clump; they are done when the texture is creamy, about 25-30 minutes.  Season with additional salt and butter to taste, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.


Additional seasonings:  ½ tsp ground black pepper or garlic

If adding cheese reduce water to 2 cups, add in 2 cups milk; cook grits according to instructions.  Add ½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese plus 2 additional Tbsp butter to grits; whisk to fully incorporate.

 Basic Polenta
6 cups water
2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups stone ground cornmeal
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
In a large saucepan , high heat, bring water to a boil ; add salt.  Slowly whisk in the cornmeal; reduce heat to low; cook until the mixture thickens and the cornmeal is tender, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat; add butter; stir until fully incorporated.
Makes 6 servings.
Polenta can be served as is, or spread in a parchment lined baking pan, cooled in the refrigerator and cut into shapes.
Additional ingredients to make it more savory:  ½ cup of minced mushrooms, red onion or both; sautéed in butter before adding.
Use chicken broth instead of water for a richer flavor.
Reduce water to 4 cups; add 2 cups milk, follow cooking instruction; and then whisk in ¾ cup shredded Parmesan cheese.

This is a basic recipe for cornbread.  Chile peppers, such as jalapeno, and/or cheese can be added; the amount is up to the baker.  Personally, if making a cornbread with chile peppers, I only add one fine diced for each loaf being made.  I do not want the flavor of the cornbread itself to be overpowered.
1 Tbsp melted, unsalted butter
2 cups all purpose flour
2 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 cups yellow cornmeal
½ cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups milk
2 large eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 400F.  Brush two 9”x5”x3” loaf pans with the melted butter.
Into a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.  Add in the cornmeal and sugar, mix well.  Cut the softened butter into the dry mixture until it forms a coarse meal.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk and eggs; mix with coarse meal until a smooth batter forms.  Divide the batter between the 2 loaf pans.
Bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes cleanly out of the center.  Cool the pans on wire racks for 15 minutes before turning the loaves out.  The cornbread can be served warm or cool.  To store, wrap in plastic wrap and it will keep for 2 days in a cool, dry place; or it can be frozen for up to 2 weeks.
Makes 2 loaves.
Mary Cokenour                                                    
November 1, 1997

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