Kernels of Truth About Cornmeal

Cornmeal flour i i

hide captionCornmeal can range from a fine flour to a coarse grind about the size of Kosher salt. Despite its name, cornmeal mush — such as polenta, grits or Indian pudding — can be absolutely delicious when made right.

Kevin Weeks for NPR
Cornmeal flour

Cornmeal can range from a fine flour to a coarse grind about the size of Kosher salt. Despite its name, cornmeal mush — such as polenta, grits or Indian pudding — can be absolutely delicious when made right.

Kevin Weeks for NPR

About the Author

After working as editor of various computer magazines, Kevin Weeks is now a personal chef in Knoxville, Tenn. He specializes in cooking with a Mediterranean accent, filling plates with the flavors of Southern Europe and Northern Africa. Weeks also teaches cooking classes and blogs at Seriously Good.

I was in the third grade when my recipe collection began to grow — from one to two. I had mastered peanut butter candy the year before and now I was moving on to Indian pudding.

It was just before Thanksgiving, and my class was studying American Indians. We were given a recipe for traditional Indian pudding, which I brought home and got my mother to help me make. My early interest in cooking was, I suppose, a clue that I'd become a chef. My discovery of Indian pudding was certainly my awakening to the wonders of cornmeal.

Indian pudding is a mixture of cornmeal, milk and molasses that's typically baked. Despite its name, Indian pudding didn't originate with the Indians (although they most likely had a similar dish); instead, it seems to be a version of hasty pudding, which English settlers made with wheat and sometimes oats. When they substituted the Indian grain (corn), they called it Indian pudding.

Like all grains, corn kernels can survive a long time as potential seeds or tomorrow's dinner. The huge, dried kernels will crack your teeth, so for use in cooking, dried corn is usually ground first. The kernel also can be soaked in lye (wood ashes, traditionally) to make hominy, but this process takes several days, so it wasn't always an option. But you can use ground corn immediately for tortillas, cornbread or tamales. I add cornmeal to chili to thicken it.

Or you can go for its real splendor and make mush, which is what you get when you mix a ground grain with a liquid. It may sound horrible, but it actually can be sublime. Polenta, Indian pudding and grits, for example, are all forms of cornmeal mush. Made well, all are delicious.

Cornmeal can range from a fine flour to a grind as coarse as Kosher salt. Although food cognoscenti love to talk about stone-ground cornmeal — meaning cornmeal ground between stone wheels at a grist mill — I can't really detect any difference in flavor from corn that is ground using more modern equipment. Most grocery stores sell corn flour (usually called cornmeal) and grits. To find other grinds, check at Latino specialty markets.

Italian polenta is the most cosmopolitan form of mush and is best when made with a slightly coarse meal with grains about the size of table salt. This gives it some body and a little bite that corn flour doesn't provide. The Italians prefer yellow cornmeal, but white cornmeal works just as well. Polenta is typically made on the stovetop and can be as simple as cornmeal cooked with some sort of broth or stock, or can include sauteed vegetables and cheese.

Grits are made with an even coarser grind (again, think Kosher salt). Southerners tend to prefer white cornmeal for grits, although as with polenta, the color doesn't really matter. Grits may be simply ground corn or they may be hominy grits. In the latter case, the kernels are soaked in lye first (making hominy) then dried before grinding. The lye treatment removes the corn bran and also changes the chemistry of the corn making its niacin (one of the B vitamins) more digestible.

Although instant grits and instant polenta are available, making them from scratch isn't difficult and the flavor is definitely richer. Take the easy way out, and you'll never fully appreciate the wonders of this most American grain.

My mother tells me I was the only one infatuated with the recipe for Indian pudding I brought home when I was 9. But it was the beginning of a lifelong search for the best American foods, a search that has led me down many culinary paths and — perhaps inevitably — back to Indian pudding.

Indian Pudding

Indian Pudding i i
Kevin Weeks for NPR
Indian Pudding
Kevin Weeks for NPR

The recipe I brought home from school has long since disappeared, but this recipe is typical.

Makes 4 servings

2 cups whole milk

1/3 cup finely ground cornmeal

1/4 cup molasses

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, separated

1/4 cup light or dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 1-quart casserole or souffle dish with 1 tablespoon of butter. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil.

Whisk cornmeal into 2/3 cup of cold milk in small bowl. Meanwhile, bring remaining milk almost to a boil (bubbles should be appearing around the edges) over medium-high heat.

Slowly whisk cornmeal mixture into hot milk. Bring to simmer, then reduce heat and continue simmering for 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in all the remaining ingredients. Pour into the buttered casserole and place the casserole in a larger baking dish with high sides. Add enough of the hot water to come halfway up the sides of the dish containing the pudding. Cover both pans with foil and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour.

Remove foil and continue baking for about 90 minutes, until the pudding is almost set but still wobbly. When done, place casserole on a wire rack and cool for at least 30 minutes before serving. Top with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Polenta with Mushroom Ragu

Polenta with Mushroom Ragu i i
Kevin Weeks for NPR
Polenta with Mushroom Ragu
Kevin Weeks for NPR

I've served this as both a side dish and a meatless main dish. I pour the polenta into 1-cup buttered ramekins and allow it to set while I make the ragu. Then I tip the rounds of polenta onto plates and ladle the mushrooms onto the rounds. Alternatively, you can pour the polenta into a buttered baking dish and top it with the ragu. This is handy if you want to make the dish in advance and then cover it with foil and reheat it in a 375-degree oven for 30 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 servings

Polenta

3 cups water

1 cup cornmeal (slightly coarse, about the texture of fine sand)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano (or other hard, dry cheese), grated

Square of brown paper bag

Set a back burner to low.

Bring water to a boil in a covered saucepan over high heat on a front burner. Add salt and pepper. Pour cornmeal slowly but steadily into boiling water, whisking constantly — you don't want the water to stop boiling.

Once all the cornmeal has been added, place a square of brown paper bag over the top, set the lid on snugly, transfer to the burner set to low, and cook for 30 minutes. The brown paper helps seal the lid. Remove from heat, stir in cheese until melted, and pour into ramekins or baking dish and smooth with a spoon.

Ragu

1 pound mushrooms (any kind or an assortment), sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large shallot, sliced into very thin half rounds

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, or 2 teaspoons dried

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup red wine, whatever your preference is

Add mushrooms to a large, nonstick skillet and sprinkle with salt. Place over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to brown and give up their liquid.

Add pepper, shallot, thyme and butter, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for another 2 to 3 minutes, until shallots are soft and translucent. Add wine and reduce by half. Spoon over polenta and serve.

Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and Grits i i
Kevin Weeks for NPR
Shrimp and Grits
Kevin Weeks for NPR

Shrimp and Cheese Grits

I first had shrimp and grits in Charleston, S.C., and fell in love. The dish is Carolina Low Country cooking at its finest, showing French, Spanish and African roots. Stay away from instant grits and even quick-cooking grits if you can; they lack the depth of flavor of raw grits. It's also not unusual to cook the grits using milk instead of water, but I find milk more an interference than an improvement. However, if I have it, I like to cook the grits using shrimp stock instead of plain water.

Makes 4 servings

Cheese Grits

4 cups water or 2 cups water and 2 cups hot stock (shrimp, chicken or vegetable)

4 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup raw grits (don't use instant grits, and try to avoid quick grits)

1 1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Bring water, or water and stock, to a gentle boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add butter, salt and pepper. Slowly stir in grits (making sure the grits don't settle on the bottom and burn) then reduce heat to medium-low. Cook uncovered for 20 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Grits should be creamy, with about the consistency of oatmeal. If they are too thin, cook a bit longer; if they are too thick, add a bit of hot water, but keep in mind the cheese will thicken the mixture. Remove from heat and stir in the grated cheese.

Shrimp

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound shrimp, peeled (reserve shells for making stock)

4 slices bacon

1/4 bell pepper (any color), diced (about 1/4 cup)

3 scallions thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/2 cup finely diced tomato (canned works fine)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Mix together the white, black, red pepper and salt. Toss pepper mix with shrimp in a medium bowl and set aside.

Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat, cool and chop coarsely.

Reserve about 2 tablespoons of bacon grease in the skillet, add bell pepper and cook over medium heat until softened. Add scallions and garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Add all remaining ingredients (including chopped bacon), increase heat to medium-high, and cook until shrimp is opaque — about 5 minutes.

Spoon grits onto plates or bowls and distribute shrimp over grits.

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