During the month of October, we were subjugated to Mother Nature experiencing the indecisive phase of menopause. It started our seasonably warm during the day, and comfortably cool for good sleeping nights. That was her version of sleeping with one leg outside of the blankets. Suddenly, it became so cold that snow fell; then sort of cold with thunderstorms, and hail pounding the land. Most days, we start out wearing a winter coat, switch to a lighter sweatshirt, only to be searching for that coat, once again, at night.
Here we are in November, the in-between of last harvest and the hibernation of winter. It is also the month to begin planning for the holidays; feasting, presents, traveling and making resolutions for the New Year. While the various Hallmark channels are playing Christmas themed movies already, 24/7, until sometime in January; Black Friday commercials have been running for weeks. Basically, while sitting in your Halloween costume, you can shop for Christmas presents, and plan your Thanksgiving meal, all at the same time. Bah Humbug, I say!
There is something important, that the past two years should have taught us all, and that is to savor every moment. Correct, tomorrow is never guaranteed, but pushing everything together, just in case, leaves nothing to appreciate later on; like the simple things.
There are many things that are simply good as is, and you do not 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, and give us comfort.
Some of our most satisfying comforts come from a versatile vegetable, Corn. Delicious freshly grilled and coated with garlic or honey butter; or boiled in milk to bring out that rich sweetness. Or 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.
In our southwestern states, especially, white, yellow or blue cornmeal is a mainstay staple found in almost every pantry. 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. 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.
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.
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 Tbsps. butter to grits; whisk to fully incorporate.
6 cups water
2 tsps. salt
1 and 3/4 cups stone ground cornmeal
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
In a large sauce pan, 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.
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.
…and if you are looking for a soup to serve at a holiday meal, something to warm up your bones, or even bring to someone feeling poorly, try…
Chicken Corn Chowder
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/8 tsp salt
¼ tsp. paprika and ground black pepper
4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, peeled and large diced
2 stalks celery, large diced
1 small onion, diced
6 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
3 cups milk
2 cups cooked whole kernel corn
2 hard boiled eggs, diced
Preheat oven to 350F; spray roasting pan with nonstick spray. Season chicken with the salt, black pepper and paprika; roast for 15-20 minutes; juices in chicken will run clear. Remove and cut into cubes. While chicken is roasting, place potatoes, carrots and celery in a large pot, cover with salted water; cook on high heat until potatoes are fork tender. Drain, but retain 1 cup of water.
In the large pot, melt butter on medium-high heat, add onion and cook for 5 minutes; add in flour and mix thoroughly. Continue to cook for another 5 minutes, stirring to make sure the flour is well incorporated. Add in milk, retained water and corn; bring to a boil, stir and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Mix in diced eggs and serve.
Makes 6 servings.