Cornmeal is a versatile grain that is probably more integral to southern cooking than it is to midwestern fare*. But if your family has southern roots, or you’ve got an Italian grandmother, then I’ll bet that cornmeal appears in your personal food history.
You can anchor a meal with cornmeal in the same way you use potatoes, rice, and noodles: serve with proteins and vegetables to create a balanced and filling meal. Because it is gluten-free, corn is a great option for those eaters avoiding gluten.
Cooked cornmeal is incredibly flexible – you can go savory or sweet. Once cooked, polenta (grits) can also be formed and grilled or fried into cakes or fries. It freezes well, too – it’s one of those things that I make extra of so that I can freeze and use later.
I have to imagine that “hot cereal” is so old-school that it’s now cool again, right? (Anyone else grow up loving Cream of Wheat?) When you need a change-up from oats, add grits/polenta to your breakfast repertoire. You could also make cornmeal pancakes or waffles.
It’s not uncommon to see polenta paired with hearty, tomato-rich sauces, especially those prepared with slow-cooked meats (the quintessential American version of this is cornbread and BBQ). Here is a great slow-cooker recipe for beef (it’s getting hot out there! OK, that was two recipes). This recipe is for sausage lovers, and this one for a meatless option. Last week I made a pot of polenta and served it with sautéed mushrooms, onions, asparagus and peppers with a splash of white wine.
Here’s an interesting twist on meatballs from chef Vivian Howard, a champion of southern regional cooking. They would make a great party appetizer.
Here is a meatless option from Haiti that I made this winter – made with black beans. I loved it!
Baked Goods and Dessert
Steph says that we MUST check out cornmeal cookies from Milkbar’s Christina Tosi.
Cornmeal also has a wonderful use in muffins* and cakes. I have a go-to cornmeal cake that I make for pretty much any occasion (“occasional” also defined as “any time I want cake”). It’s so good that, when pressed for time or ingredients, I just leave out the (frankly optional) blueberry sauce. I’ve also served it with prepared jam from the store. Warning: you’re going to want to save yourself a couple of pieces for breakfast the next day (goes great with coffee!).
The cornmeal I have from Ackerman Farms (sold at their farmers’ market stall or at Common Ground Grocery) and it is ground quite fine, so it cooks on on the stovetop very quickly. Here is the easy method that I used.
Pressure Cooking Method
(Have I mentioned how much I love Hip Pressure Cooking?) The cornmeal I had cooked up so quickly on the stove, I’m not sure it would be worth it to haul out my pressure cooker. But I really enjoyed their outline of the debate between Italian foodies and Italian nonnas about the pressure cooker as an appropriate polenta-cooking tool. (I am not taking sides, but would be happy to participate in a taste-off if in this debate.) Some good polenta ideas in there, too.
*I know someone is going to argue with me about this statement. No matter! Just promise to prove me wrong by sharing your family’s cornbread recipe.
** Add “ricotta” to yogurt and buttermilk as essentials for quickbread ingredients. Don’t these muffins look good?! Tell me if you make them…
Enjoy! — J.S.