Although polenta is woven firmly into the cooking and culture of much of Europe, it’s relatively modern since corn didn’t come to Europe ‘til after Columbus, at the very end of the 15th century. However, porridges made from dried and ground grains existed long before that. While it was generally rejected in well-to-do parts of the Continent, it was quickly put to use as an economical way to feed the poor. In hard-scrabble, scrounging economies—Tuscany, the mountains of Northern Italy and Greece and remote spots like Romania, corn polenta became THE major food for most people.While it is still associated in some people’s minds with poverty, it’s also connected to the communities that cook it in the same way that pasta, rice, fish and paella are elsewhere. They’re part of everyday eating, part of the seasonal swings of celebration, tied into religious feasting and fasting rituals.
On a more modern, socio-economic, political level, polenta demonstrates what great food can still be about. In his excellent “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan points out that “There are some forty-five thousand products on supermarket shelves and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” Of those, I’m sure polenta variants are less than a tenth of one percent. What he’s talking about is the corn syrup in soda, the corn that’s fed to the cows that we buy in the butcher section, the corn in the candy bars at the checkout counter.
Whereas the other corn activity is rather intentionally, or at least practically, secretive, great polenta puts corn out front. Unlike all those others items where corn is soda pop, corn is beef, corn is candy bars, here is corn is corn. And it’s good!
The traditional technique is to steadily add a thin stream of dry polenta to boiling water, stirring continuously to avoid lumping, then to continue cooking and stirring for an hour or more ‘til it’s done. At best this can be tricky; at worst you wind up with an annoyingly large number of very unpleasant little lumps. I go for simply stirring in the polenta when the water is warm but NOT boiling. It seems to work every time, and I can’t quite figure out why everyone insists on waiting for the water to boil.
In terms of proportion, I generally go four parts water to one part polenta but you can adjust up or down depending on what thickness you want. As far as cooking time goes, I’d definitely say the longer the better. If you’re in a huge rush twenty minutes of bubbling action will probably suffice, but the flavor will be less developed than it could be.
While cooking, you do have to stir it, but I’ll say flat out that the amount of stirring required is really not all that big a deal. Once it’s going, I let the polenta cook fifteen, twenty minutes between stirs and it works fine. Covering the pot will keep it from cooking down too quickly and from forming a skin on the top. Less frequent stirring is likely to lead to the formation of a crust at the bottom of the pot. But like the soccarat (the crunchy bits of rice that stick to the bottom of the paella pan), the crust from the polenta pot is actually highly prized. I scrape it from the pot and eat it in thin slices, sort of like pork rinds or potato chips for corn eaters.
Eating Soft Polenta
This is really about as easy as it gets. As long as you’ve started with good polenta and have good toppings to put on it, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. You can do it with nothing but good butter, salt and pepper. It’s good with Gorgonzola, Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh goat cheese, Fontina val D’aosta or just about any cheese, really. And it’s great with tomato sauces of all sorts.
Cooked, Cooled, Sliced and Fried
First you cook the raw cornmeal and eat it warm and soft from the pot. Additional polenta is left overnight to cool, which makes it easy to slice for frying or baking. Polenta prepared in this manner is delicious, and can be served as a side dish with almost any meat, fish or vegetable, just as you would a potato or rice. You can also do polenta on the spit – skewers of polenta and Fontina dipped in egg and rolled in bread crumbs and then fried.
Like pasta, there is an almost limitless number of things to accompany polenta—perhaps even more because polenta is also good with sweet sauces as well as savory.
Two Great Butters to Melt on Top
A bowl of great polenta topped with a large pat of good butter is such a simple dish, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold an
d to eat. We recommend these two, available at our Creamery Cheese Shop:
1) Pastureland Butter from Minnesota
2) Cultured Butter from Vermont Barrel-Aged Feta from Northern Greece
The very special, barrel-aged feta we get from the Almyros region of Greece is pretty remarkably good, whether you crumble onto (or into) polenta, eat it as is with a slice of bread or use it on salad, omelets or most anything else. It’s made from milk that’s gathered only from sheep that are grazing in the pastures.
Really Good Gorgonzola
Some simply lay a slab of their beloved blue cheese next to the bowl of polenta; the cheese needs to be at room temperature so that when you pick some up with your fork and put it on the hot polenta, it gets soft and melty. Others lay a whole slice of the cheese atop the bowl and let it soften that way. Better Gorgonzola is of course going to taste better. Ours is coming in from northern Italy, aged by Carlo and Giovanni Giori.
Parmigiano-Reggiano from the Hills of Modena
From one farm in the hills above Modena (home of Balsamic vinegar), this is a very special cheese. Having tasted from probably a hundred different dairies over the years, this cheese consistently stands out to me for its full flavor and fine finish. I could go on at length about what makes this cheese so good, but space doesn’t allow it.
Tomato sauces from Il Mongetto
Probably the best bottled tomato sauces I’ve ever tried, made up in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, not all that far (by American standards) from where the Marinos mill their corn. We’ve got half a dozen different varieties at the Deli and they’re all good.
If you are eating polenta for breakfast, I really recommend topping it with a bit of this wonderfully bittersweet honey from the Deli.
Little Dragons from Zingerman’s Creamery
This is the newest cheese from the Creamery. It’s great on its own but it happens—really just coincidentally—to be particularly good on polenta. It’s a fairly fresh goat cheese, one that’s very lightly pressed to make for a modestly creamier texture than our super fresh rounds of City Goats, then rolled in fresh tarragon leaves.
A Pair of Really Great Polentas
1. Eight Row Corn from the Marino Family
The Marinos are very much head-down, noses to the grindstone, sticking stubbornly and smilingly to their traditional regional cooking. They grow an antique variety of corn called Otto File. The name means “8 Row” and is likely a very close descendant of the old—also 8-rowed—corns that would have come over with Columbus and crew. The grains—the corn kernels—are huge compared to what I’m used to seeing over here; each is bigger than the nail on your little finger. Yields, not surprisingly, are low. The corn is grown organically, field ripened and dried primarily in the sun when possible. The milling is done with old stones and the germ is left in. We bring it regularly from Italy and store it here under refrigerated conditions to protect its quality.
At the deli, you can buy it by the bag to take home and cook. You can also buy a bowl of it hot, either for breakfast with very delicious Italian chestnut honey and golden raisins or later in the day with butter and cheese – cooked and cooled and ready to take home with you to prepare yourself.
2. Spin Rossa della Valsugana Polenta
Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills has embarked on what I think is now a lifelong mission to find amazing old corns and restore them to viable economic existence. We do sell, cook and eat many of the old varieties that he offers. And this very special polenta is one of the best. It’s known in Italian as Spin Rossa della Valsugana, which simply means the spiny red corn from the Valley of Sugana. When we first started serving it at the Roadhouse last year, it was the likely the FIRST commercial crop of this seed variety to be grown in the Americas in many centuries.
The Florianis family in Trentino (on the Eastern end of Italy) were the LAST ones in their region harvesting this variety of corn and for all anyone can tell, perhaps the last farmers anywhere growing it. They say that their family has grown this particular corn for generations as long as anyone can remember, likely since the 16th century. The corn was actually something people in the areas were ashamed of—polenta was a sign of poverty and the corn itself was considered to be coarse in appearance and flavor in comparison to fancier looking modern alternatives.
When one of the Floriani sons sent a few dozen seeds to Glenn back in South Carolina, Glenn ate the dried corn “raw”—there wasn’t enough to grind or cook—and was blown away by the flavor of it and wanted to get more to grow. Glenn brought some of their seed corn back to the US and started growing it organically on about fifteen different farms around the country; the idea is to spread out the growing to protect the corn and make sure that it survives.
Having been serving this amazing polenta at the Roadhouse on specials all year, I can tell you that it’s pretty remarkable stuff. We’ve been cooking it with nothing more than water and salt and it’s really pretty spectacularly flavorful. Buttery, rich, it tastes distinctly of corn and it’s just really good.
In the food world, dried corn has remained a closely closeted, practically clandestine culinary secret. No longer. We’re going to out it – I’m reluctantly going to formally announce that Pennsylvania Dutch dried corn is the “next big thing.”
Jim Grosh, business manager at the Roadhouse, tasted the first batch of creamed corn we made from it, smiled big and said, “Yep, that’s the stuff. I grew up on it.” The late RW Apple who has written extensively on both food and politics for the New York Times for many years reported that, “I’ve been eating Cope’s corn since my childhood.” Writing about the Thanksgiving meal, he said, “More than anything except the turkey, it is a link to our forefathers, something we all seem to crave.”
The tradition of drying corn is a natural one. Corn is in season a few weeks of the year. The rest of the time it has to be preserved, and back then, drying was the most common way of preserving. The key is to get the corn into production right after picking before its sugars start turning to starches. The drying then caramelizes the natural sugars in the corn, giving it this subtle, toasty, super sweet flavor.
To this day, most all of the dried corn made is consumed within an hour or two of what should be called Dried Corn World Headquarters in Rheems, PA. That’s where the John Cope’s is. When it comes to dried corn today, Cope’s is it-they’re the only ones left making it! Martin Cope did his first batch in 1900 and the company is basically still doing it now as they were then. They buy corn only during the height of the season when the sugars are at their highest.
When we cook it up into Pennsylvania Dutch creamed corn, it’s got an amazing brightness of flavor that makes me want to eat this stuff even when corn is in season in the summer! In his New York Times piece, RW Apple quoted Thomas Cope as saying, “Isn’t it something? Such a simple process, but it gives you the taste of corn roasted over an open fire, not just in the summer but all year long.”
Creamed corn is only one of a few million things I think you can make with this stuff. The great thing about creamed corn made from Pennsylvania Dutch dried corn is that it was designed to be made in the middle of the winter and that it tastes terrific regardless of when you eat it. Essentially anything you make with fresh corn is going to be good with dried corn. We make a great corn chowder from it at the Roadhouse. So for the nine or ten months out of the year when there’s no good local corn to be had, this is the old-fashioned, great tasting, American way to go. Stop by the Roadhouse for a taste, or buy a box at the Deli, Mail Order or Roadhouse and cook some up for yourself.
“How can you have macaroni and cheese that costs so much?”
My first response to people challenging what we were charging was to see what was really going on in the food world. So I went around and checked what other places were charging for pasta dishes. What I found was that in every halfway decent restaurant in town they were charging pretty much the same prices we were for pasta. This quelled my anxieties but left me still wondering to myself why so many customers seemed so stressed out by what we were charging.
Finally the obvious dawned on me – when people think “macaroni and cheese” they think “low end.” By contrast, when they think “pasta” they think suave Italian cachet. Which made me realize that this is really about a campaign for American culinary self-esteem and self-acceptance, and an effort to finally defeat the image that “if it’s foreign it’s fancier.” Because guys, let’s face facts – macaroni and cheese is pasta.
Sure, you can get the stuff that comes in a box. I grew up on it. Powdered whey by-product, horribly cheap noodles. You can step up from that and buy cheap commercial “macaroni” from Sexton and toss it with cheap commercial cheese after you buck it up with some canned cream sauce. Not very good either. I know this is what people have in their heads. Low end, mushily soft commercial macaroni with low end industrial cheese. Sounds terrible to me. And to let that define the category seems akin to letting Philadelphia brand define cream cheese or Wonder define bread.
The truth is that not only is the macaroni and cheese at the Roadhouse a really high end macaroni and cheese, it’s made with way better ingredients than almost any restaurant anywhere is going to use.
Typically we use Martelli maccheroni – to my taste, the best there is anywhere. It comes from Italy, and it’s really good. (I guess I should note that if there were an outstanding American pasta of that caliber we’d use it. So far, I don’t know of one. I love Al Dente as an egg noodle but it’s not the type of dried pasta that we need for this type of dish.) We use really good cheese – two-year old raw milk, hand made cheddar from Grafton Village in Vermont. We use real cream, Dijon mustard, and onions.
Our macaroni and cheese has got all the comfort-food appeal of the stuff you get out of a box, but it also stands toe to toe with any “pasta” dish you can find.
I feel a little bad that in the height of tomato season I show up here touting mush probably not the time to writing about doing so since theres a whole farmers market full of really great fresh fruits and vegetables to be cooking with. But . . . I got started on it and the more I cook it, eat it and learn about it the more passionate I’m becoming, the more I want to learn. I cooked it really at first out of curiosity and came out of with a culinary equivalent of a crush; Ive made mush five times in the last two weeks, sometimes both as the main course and then, a little set aside to eat for dessert (more on this in a minute). Like I said, Ive got mush on my mind.
I will say up front that when I got going on this I didn’t realize right off that I was going to end up with a two-year project. Given my penchant for perfectionism my inclination is not to put these notes out until Ive learned a whole lot more about mush than I know now. But since that’ll take many months and since I’ve been happily eating this all week and in a little bit I’m going to go home and cook some more because it’s so darned good, I figured I should start getting the word out to you sooner, rather than later. So forgive the fact that my mush knowledge remains rather superficial and let this be an entree, not an ending. Your own experiences and insights would be very welcome send ’em my way if you grew up with this stuff!!
I also want to make clear that the emphasis here has to be, as per the title above, isn’t really on mush for its own sake, but specifically about mush made from Anson Mills’ cornmeal. Since the dish is just cornmeal, water and salt it’s clearly only as good as the corn that goes into it. Anson’s is amazing; my fixation on the dish is coming really only because the corn meal we’re getting from Glenn at Anson Mills is so incredibly good. Mush made from Quaker cornmeal is going to be as bland as a sliced American single.
If you aren’t familiar with the name, mush is an old American dish that’s basically cooked cornmeal porridge. It’s pronounced “mush” like “rush”, and not “mush” as in “push.”. Mush can be eaten on its own for most any meal. You can do pretty much anything you do with grits or polenta you can do with mush. Which is why the first question that most everyone who doesn’t know it asks me is,
“What’s the difference between mush, polenta and grits?”
And a fine question it is. At a broad level you can certainly stick all three into the same category-porridge made of dried, ground corn. Taking the level of detail down a bit, the general answer I give about grits and polenta is that more often than not grits are more coarsely ground, and polenta finer. Corn meal for making traditional mush would typically be finer still. (There are of course exceptions which is . . . fine.) While the casual cook might think that the two sound like pretty much the same dish with different names, in the American South grits and mush are very definitely considered two different things. And for reasons I’ve not yet learned enough to know, while grits are really unknown in old time eating north of the Mason Dixon line (except with southern transplants or people like me who want to eat southern food up here), mush is all over old New England cooking.
In trying to figure out more about what makes these three dishes-mush, grits and polenta-different I talked to Glenn from Anson Mills, who’s done as much with growing, milling and cooking old corn varietals as anyone I know. He’s incredibly passionate about all things to do with old grains, corns and the Carolina Gold rice we get from him and he poured out pages of good info for me on this subject. After a long series of e-discussions, I finally came upon the belated glimpse of the obvious that I’d been focusing way too much on trying to come up with a black and white difference between each of the three dishes when in truth they’re all a bit different but clearly related.
I guess what I?m taking away is that the key for people to focus on is less on the name attached to the dish and more to:
a) The type of corn being used because between variety and terroir they all taste different,
b) The grind and its impact on texture and flavor of the corn
c) The ways that the dish is eaten, and what it’s eaten with in various places.
So . . . in the moment, leaving grits and polenta for future pieces . . .
given what I’ve just said, let’s focus on the mush I’ve been making. It’s incredibly simple: Anson Mills cornmeal, cooked at a ratio of about 4 parts water to 1 part cornmeal for an hour or so. You can go somewhat shorter or definitely longer-with all these corn porridges longer is almost always better if you have the time because the starches break down slowly and you get a creamier, richer texture.
Again, the reason I’ve fallen so in love with making mush is, without question because the Anson Mills corn meal is so incredibly good. Like all their stuff this meal is made from heirloom varietals that yield about 20% at best of what you get out of commercial corns. (Alex has spoken at length about this with all the work he’s doing to grow heirlooms at Cornman Farms.) Right now Anson’s meal is made from four old varietals-Leaming, John Haulk, Jarvis and Hickory King Yellow. All four are dent corns (which are softer in texture than the alternative, known as flint corn). Glenn related that,”All, except the Leaming are of Carolina or Georgia provenance; Leaming is one of the three yellow corns used in the first hybrid production trials before 1900 . . . provenance Pennsylvania . . . very floral.” Like I said, the man takes his cornmeal very seriously. In the NY Times a few years ago he said, ” Great corn is like great wine.” I agree wholeheartedly; this is the other end of the agricultural world from the industrial corns that Michael Pollan writes about in “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Like everything we get from Anson Mills, the corn is grown organically.
It’s field dried and stone ground. Because, like all Anson products, it has the germ left in (which makes it way more flavorful) it has to be refrigerated, so please keep that in mind for storage here, or if you’re sending it to customers out of town. (Frank just visited with Glenn in person so he may have some good things to add to this.)
All four of the varietals in this mix are yellow corn, as, obviously then, is the meal itself. To quote Glenn, “It’s hard to make a general statement about corn flavors associated with color, but whites tend toward mineral and floral and yellows are usually more forwardly “corn” in flavor with floral nuances in the background.?
Floral is the key word for me. The first time I ate this stuff I did a little double take, thinking maybe I’d let something into the pot other the water, cornmeal and salt-it really was that good, and that different. Aromatic. Delicious. I mean it sounds silly to get so poetic about something as seemingly simple as mush but . . . I’m there.
You can serve most anything with mush. It can be cooked up with other items-certainly most any sauteed or roasted vegetable would be good. Unlike polenta in Italy you won’t see old recipes for it served with tomato sauce because colonial era Americans really didn’t eat tomatoes. What they did eat apparently was lots of “mush and milk,” which is just what it sounds like. A bowl of hot mush with cold milk either on the side or in a well made in the middle of the mush. (This is no surprise since it’s exactly how the Irish still eat oatmeal today.) My 1918 copy of “The Book of Corn Cookery” gives recipes for mush with figs, dates, and prunes. It’s also good topped with honey and of course with cheese. (It also has a buttermilk mush-meal cooked in buttermilk instead of water in a double boiler. Haven’t tried it yet but will.) I’ve seen it done with greens and I’ve got a Gullah recipe for oyster mush that I’m definitely going to try this week.
What I’ve been making at home is a dish that I read about in some Civil War era food writing-it’s just mush served up with fried bacon pieces and a lot of bacon fat. I’ve been using the Arkansas peppered bacon which I love but any of our good bacons would work well I’m sure. Just fry the bits of bacon til crisp and then pour it and the fat in the pan over top of the mush, add a bit of salt and pepper and eat it hot. I’m telling you . . . it’s good.
Serve it with a fried egg if you’re so inclined. Speaking of fried, mush is often served that way as well-cooked, cooled and then cut into slabs and fried up the next day. Again bacon fat would be the obvious Southern choice but you could certainly do it with butter or olive oil I suppose too.
For the dessert thing . . . up in New England mush most often seems to be known by the name Hasty Pudding. Hasty pudding is really simple-cooked mush topped with something sweet. Historically it seems like a precursor of Indian pudding, which required more ingredients and started to get closer to the steamed puddings the colonists would have craved from back home in Britain. In New England hasty pudding is often (though definitely not always) eaten with a sweet topping, most often, up there, maple syrup.
Which is very good. But to my personal taste, better still is the southern version, which is to serve the mush, topped with sorghum syrup. I like the maple, but I swear by the sorghum. If you want it straight from the miller, Glenn’s official quote on the subject of sorghum on mush (sounds like a town in rural England) was “Yummy.” He added that, “my daughter Ansley would
fight for this dish . . . and she’s a pacifist.” Me too on both counts.
I know this corn-based dessert thing probably sounds strange but remember, unlike most of the population, I’m inclined towards savory rather than sweet so . . . for me, this is like the best dessert (said with due deference to the masters of chocolate and pastry making and impassioned dessert eating people around here like Amy, Charlie, Duff, Nina and others). The sweetness of the corn and its . . . I guess, corniness come up against the slightly sour, just a bit bitter, deep dark sweetness of the sorghum. (Glenn suggested the term “whiplash” to describe this sweet/sour phenomenon as it was used to profile the best Madeira back in colonial times.) I think, for me, the sourness of the sorghum draws me in more than the higher notes of the maple but you can do it any way you like. Be good with molasses too I’m sure. (For more on sorghum syrup, see the May-June issue of Zingerman’s News or drop me a line and I’ll send you info ASAP.)
OK, there you go, more than you ever wanted to know about mush. If you’re up for a bit of cornmeal cooking, give it a try. If you like it half as much as I have I think it’ll be worth the stove time.
(Although we can and I’m sure will, we dont formally have this stuff rolled out for sale yet. The Roadhouse has the cornmeal on hand for the catfish, hush puppies and fried green tomatoes. While we haven’t been serving it as mush we probably will be soon. And anyone in the ZCoB can get it there or directly from Anson in quantity when we get our next orders in.)
There are a million versions of this classic low country rice recipe. Like all simple dishes the quality of the ingredients makes a huge difference in the way the finished food will taste. The Carolina Gold rice makes the recipe! I like the spiciness and full flavor of the Arkansas Peppered bacon but you can use other full flavored traditional bacons as well.
2 cups Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice
4 medium tomatoes
1/2 pound Arkansas peppered bacon, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2 cups chicken broth (you will not end up using it all)
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Wash the rice in cold water three times, or until the water runs clear.
Halve the tomatoes and squeeze the juice into a medium bowl. You’ll want about 2 cups liquid for cooking the rice, so measure out the tomato juice and top it off with enough chicken broth to equal 2 cups total.
Chop the “juiced” tomatoes and set aside.
Fry the bacon in a heavy-bottomed stockpot over moderate heat until it’s crisp, about 15 minutes or so. Remove the bacon from the pot, and set it aside on a towel to drain.
Reduce the heat slightly and add the chopped onion to the pot. Sauté the onion, stirring occasionally, until it’s slightly caramelized, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the broth and tomato juice to a boil in a medium-sized pan and reduce to a low simmer. If you’re working with unsalted broth, add 1 teaspoon salt.
When the onions are slightly caramelized, raise the heat a bit and add the rice and stir well. Sauté for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, until the rice is very hot and shiny.
Stir the chopped tomatoes into the rice and cook another minute or so, stirring constantly.
Stir the simmering broth into the rice, cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand covered for 15 minutes. (The rice will continue cooking in the steam, so no peaking!) Add a bit of salt and a generous dose of freshly ground black pepper, fluff with a fork and serve!