Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Praise of Polenta

I’m enamored with corn. Growing up in the Midwest, a cornfield was a life force to be reckoned with. It was my closest experience to the ocean until I came face to face with the Pacific. Corn grows at a very high rate of the photosynthesis. If you get really quiet you can hear it grow at night. It came to Northern Europe from the New World where it was held sacred. Cultures were built and fell to the maize gods. Corn syrup sweetens our processed foods and ethanol fuels our vehicles. Corn inspired a costume made long ago for a college project, complete with a green top hat and silk streamers. So much eulogizing, you get the picture.

So lately, my corn love has channeled into Polenta. Nothing like Rustic Italian peasant food to rustle up a food fantasy. When the kids were little and we lived close to the bone, we called it cornmeal mush and served it steamy on frosty mornings. Sometimes it was sweet, and sometimes it was salty, depending on the cash flow. The leftovers were pressed into oiled bread pans to chill until firm. Turning the pans over, we'd slice the rest to fry up for dinner. It was usually served with a brilliant ad hoc sauce, whatever we had.

These winter days, I like to make polenta pie. The corn crust accepts any flavor, sort of like pizza only corny. The crust is easy, the rest is up for grabs. Here’s my basic recipe and some ideas on how to pie it. Most fancy grocery stores carry Polenta, offering various grinds and recipes. Regular Cornmeal can always be found in the baking section of the supermarket.

Makes 2
9 inch pie shells.
Shells can be made ahead and frozen, or stored in fridge for 3 days.

First make the Polenta:
3 cups boiling water or stock
1 cup polenta
salt to taste
2 Tablespoons butter (or olive oil, sour cream, grated cheese) Play!

In a saucepan, bring water to boil, add salt. Using a whisk, gradually stir in the corn. Take your time with this or it will get lumpy. Add the butter. Keep stirring. It will start to plop all over.
The Trick to avoid burning! Place pan in a double boiler right after you stir in the corn (if you don’t have a double boiler try a saucepan in a skillet of water), lower heat and cook for 15 minutes or until thick, stirring frequently.
To form the Crusts:
Oil 2 pie pans. Divide and spread the hot polenta into the pans and drizzle with olive oil. Pat it out to the sides with your fingertips or the back of a spoon. Form a slight edge. Bake at 400 for 10 -15 minutes or until the top and bottom are slightly crispy. Remove, chill for later, or add toppings and return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes.

Look in your fridge is my signature recommendation. Polenta Pie is a great way to use up leftovers. Corn is the common denominator. Get creative. The world is your pie. Everything is optional.

We like to play with themes, letting the earthy sweetness and grain of the corn pull everything into culinary harmony. It sure wowed our Gourmet Dinner Club.
Greek - lamb meatballs, garlic, tomatoes, feta, olives
Mexican –beans, salsa, cheese
Italian – meats, roasted garlic and tomatoes, Romano/ Pecorino cheese
Del Mar –seafood, sour cream, spinach, artichoke hearts
Hungarian – goulash, smoked paprika

Easy Hangover Brunch… fill a polenta pie shell with whatever tomato sauce you can pull together in a pinch. The best is last night’s leftovers. Spoon out 4-6 little moats and crack an egg into each one, top with grated Parmesan cheese, bake at 400˚ for 10-15 minutes depending on how you like your eggs.

That Corn keeps growing in them hills,
just like Old Man River keeps flowing along.