- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Most of us know cornmeal as the main component of corn bread and as a grain that can be cooked as porridge for a hot breakfast cereal. Yet cornmeal has countless other uses.

As a coating, it adds crunch to fried foods and thus is a popular breading element for fried fish in the South. Bakers mix cornmeal with other grains to give texture to yeast breads, to contribute crispness to biscotti and to lend flavor to cakes.

Cornmeal is ground dried corn. It can be white, yellow, blue or red, depending on the color of the corn used, and can be ground coarse, medium or fine. Coarse cornmeal takes longer to cook than fine and needs more liquid. Unlike corn on the cob, cornmeal is not particularly sweet because it’s made from a different variety of corn.

Grits are made of white or yellow cornmeal, usually coarse, but also available finely ground. Grits also is the name of the mush made from the dried meal. A favorite in the South, grits can be delicious, like the buttery version I ate at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, which was as enticing as the tender veal it accompanied.

According to Betty Fussell, author of “Crazy for Corn” (Perennial), grits originally were made from ground hominy but today come from ordinary cornmeal. Hominy, she said, is “dried whole corn kernels boiled with some form of alkali (lye from wood ash or lime slaked from limestone) to remove the kernels’ tough outer skin.” This technique was developed by ancient American Indians. In Mexico, hominy is ground to make masa, the dough for corn tortillas and tamales, and also for masa harina, a finely ground corn flour.

With such long experience with cornmeal, it’s not surprising that cooks in the Americas have developed numerous uses for it. Salvadoran cooks love pupusas, which resemble thick corn tortillas that sometimes enclose cheese, meat or vegetable fillings but also sometimes are pan-grilled. Similarly, in Venezuela and Colombia, arepas are flat corn cakes that are split after being cooked and are stuffed with cheese or other fillings. In Mexico, cornmeal is even presented in sweet hot drinks called atole.

From its American origin, cornmeal traveled around the world, thanks originally to Spanish explorers who carried corn to Europe. At the time, it was called maize, based on the Spanish word for the grain, and this term is still used for corn by the British and some other Europeans.

Polenta is basically the same thing as cornmeal or grits, although experts can argue that certain Italian corn varieties produce the best polenta. Like the term grits, polenta refers to both the dried grain and the dish made from it. As with grits, many prefer coarsely ground meal for making polenta, but polenta also is available in medium and fine grind and as instant polenta. You also can buy refrigerated cooked polenta in log shapes, ready to be sliced and sauteed or baked.

When I visited Val d’Aosta in northern Italy, I loved the rich polenta pasticciata. To make it, polenta is layered with Fontina cheese and butter. Some recipes are simple, such as browned polenta slices topped with well-browned onions or polenta mixed with mashed potatoes — both specialties of Friuli in the northeast. Italians also turn cornmeal into crunchy crust for fruit tarts and pair it with ground almonds to make rich poundcakes.

Less familiar outside its Romanian home is mamaliga, a form of cornmeal mush that is a staple national food of the Romanian people. Mornings begin with cooled, sliced cornmeal mush, which also is served with meat stews, soups, sauerkraut, heavy cream or sour cream.

Like the Italians, Romanians turn their cornmeal mush into rich dishes layered with cheese and bacon and heated in the oven. They make stuffed mamaliga by forming it into balls filled with ham, mushrooms or eggs, then baking it and serving it with sour cream. Fried egg-and-cheese-dipped mamaliga slices are another favorite.

Yellow cornmeal is also popular in Bulgaria, Moldova and Georgia, as well as in northern Turkey in the area bordering the Black Sea, where it is made into breads, including a pan-fried corn bread flavored with minced anchovies, parsley and mint.

In the United States, California chef John Ash, author of “From the Earth to the Table” (Dutton Adult), uses cornmeal and fresh corn kernels to make chili corn cakes flavored with red and yellow bell peppers, chili powder, cumin and cilantro. Like the Turks, he has teamed seafood with corn bread by making cornmeal muffins with crab, sauteed onions and mild chilies.

On the sweet side, Deborah Madison, author of “Local Flavors” (Broadway), serves cornmeal crepes with plums and honey ice cream. As you can see, cornmeal is more than just a humble food.

Baked cornmeal triangles with Swiss cheese

You can use freshly cooked mamaliga, polenta, cornmeal or grits for this dish, or use mamaliga or polenta that has cooled and has been cut in triangles or squares, or sliced ready-to-eat polenta logs.

Hot, just-cooked mamaliga or cold mamaliga triangles or squares (recipes follow)

2 tablespoons butter, cut in pieces, plus butter for greasing baking sheet or dish

to 1 cup grated Swiss or Kashkaval cheese

Sour cream, optional

If using hot mamaliga, butter a baking sheet. Spoon hot mamaliga onto baking sheet. Using a moistened wooden spoon or spatula, shape it in a rough square about 1 inch high. Sprinkle it with cheese and dot it with 2 tablespoons butter.

If using cold mamaliga, butter a shallow baking dish and place layer of triangles or squares inside. Sprinkle lightly with grated cheese. Continue layering, ending with cheese. Dot with 2 tablespoons butter.

Bake (hot or cold) mamaliga uncovered for about 20 minutes, or until it is hot and cheese has melted. If you baked the cornmeal in a square, cut it in triangles or squares for serving. Serve hot with sour cream, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

MAMALIGA (ROMANIAN POLENTA):

1 cups yellow or white cornmeal

Water

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups vegetable or chicken broth, water or a mixture

Soft butter, optional

Put cornmeal in a bowl and slowly stir in 1 cup cold water to make a smooth mixture. Stir in salt. Bring broth, water or a mixture of both to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Gradually stir in cornmeal mixture. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring, for 5 minutes. Stir with a whisk if necessary to remove any lumps. Partially cover and cook, stirring often, for 20 minutes or until mixture is thick.

Serve soft mamaliga topped with small pats of butter, if desired, or pour mamaliga into an oiled shallow bowl or baking dish in a thin layer, let it set and cut cold mamaliga in small triangles or squares.

Baked cornmeal triangles with tomato relish

3/4 pound ripe tomatoes, cubed

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

2 chopped scallions

Salt

1 seeded jalapeno chili, finely chopped, or pinch of cayenne

1/4 cup chopped green or red bell pepper, optional

2 finely minced garlic cloves, optional

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, optional

2 to 3 teaspoons vinegar of choice

Mamaliga triangles (preceding recipe)

Place tomatoes in a bowl and add parsley, scallions, a pinch of salt and jalapeno chili or cayenne. Add any or all of the optional ingredients (bell pepper, garlic, olive oil) and vinegar. Serve at room temperature with hot baked mamaliga triangles.

Crunchy eggplant schnitzel

To make a vegetarian schnitzel, eggplant is a favorite choice as a substitute for the traditional veal or chicken because of its meaty texture. This one has a crunchy cornmeal coating. Serve this eggplant on its own or with a fresh salsa.

1 to 1 pounds eggplant

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cornmeal

2/3 cup bread crumbs

2 eggs

1/3 cup vegetable oil, divided

Lemon wedges

Parsley or cilantro sprigs for garnish, optional

Peel eggplant if desired. Cut in slices about 3/8-inch thick. Sprinkle eggplant lightly with salt and pepper.

Spread flour over a large plate and mix it with a pinch of salt. Mix cornmeal and bread crumbs on second plate. Beat eggs in a shallow bowl. Lightly coat 1 eggplant slice with flour on both sides. Tap and shake to remove excess flour. Dip eggplant slice in egg. Dip in cornmeal mixture, completely coating both sides, and pat lightly so crumbs adhere. Set on a large plate. Repeat with remaining eggplant. Set coated eggplant pieces on plate, side by side.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large heavy skillet. Add enough eggplant to make one layer. Saute over medium-high heat about 2 minutes per side or until golden brown. Turn carefully using two pancake turners. If oil begins to brown, reduce heat to medium. Set slices on paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Set fried eggplant slices side by side on ovenproof platter and keep warm in a preheated 275-degree oven. Serve with lemon wedges for drizzling juice over and garnish with parsley or cilantro sprigs, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Cornmeal kugel

This dessert tastes somewhat like corn bread but is moist like bread pudding and slightly tangy.

5 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing baking dish

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

teaspoon salt

cup creamed cottage cheese

1 cups yogurt

1 cups sour cream

3/4 cup sugar, divided

3 large eggs, separated

Fresh cherries or other fruit

Sweetened whipped cream, optional

Butter an 8-inch round baking dish. Set aside. Mix together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, mix together cottage cheese, yogurt and sour cream.

Cream 5 tablespoons butter with 1/2 cup sugar. Add egg yolks and beat until smooth. Stir in cottage-cheese mixture, alternating with dry ingredients. Whip egg whites until they form soft peaks. To whites, add remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff and shiny but not dry. Fold whites gently into cornmeal and cottage-cheese mixture.

Gently spoon into baking dish. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven about 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in center comes out dry. Serve warm with fresh cherries or other fruit and whipped cream, if desired. Makes 8 to 9 servings.

Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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