Leave it to the Italians to be able to make an elegant dish out of corn meal mush. And leave it to the Americas, to provide the raw goods to make it possible. Polenta and mush are made from corn which is native to North and Central Americas. Inexplicably, its home continents are the places where polenta is least known. Now that’s something that needs fixing.
Fortunately, we seem to be in a crucible of food evolution where all manner of alimentary staples and produce are being viewed with new thoughts to preparation and consumption. Some of this new experimentation comes out of our new awareness of the dietary impact of gluten, some are a by-product of simply wanting to live and eat in a healthy, world-sustaining manner and some are driven by the desire to become vegetarian or vegan. To make less of a negative impact on the earth is surely an admirable goal. When it can be combined with a delicious meal, it is a seductive objective.
Like its cousins rice, potatoes, wheat and corn, grits and hominy, polenta is viable for breakfast, lunch, snacks, appetizers, dinner and even dessert. Gluten-free polenta can produce porridge and pancakes alike. It may be molded and baked, roasted, grilled, and baked into sweet cakes and confectionaries. It stands as a main dish or a side dish. Polenta may be spiced up in a robustly satisfying meal or soothed down as mild and comforting as a nursery food.
Chefs push more envelopes than those concerning flavor. They have made great inroads in the once long-cooking polenta process and reduced the required time and attention. Many of us shy away from anything classified as “instant”. A reaction to the less successful early efforts of the previous century for many staples. Techniques and processes are constantly honed and today there are instant polentas that produce beautifully creamy dishes. Like pasta, rice and couscous, polenta is a tasty, nourishing way to convey a cornucopia of vegetables to the mouth.
To our shame, we have no previous recipes on our website for polenta, which we will endeavor to rectify. Hopefully future columns will include it. We will investigate recipes for polenta pancakes, French toast, Orange Polenta Cake, the one dish tomato, and basil polenta and certainly grilled polenta drizzled with a fresh tomato sauce. We will start with today’s offering: Polenta with Mushroom Stew.
Perspective is just about everything. Struggle with a puzzle for hours, get up and walk around to the other side and dozens of missing pieces magically appear and fall into place. Toss a crossword puzzle down in frustration, turn on the radio and hear one of those everyday words with two entirely different meanings that would fit perfectly. That alternate point of view is essential. Even for experts.
Chefs may have always known this. Pick up the same old zucchini or butternut squash, turn it this way and then that. Imagine it spiralized into a pasta-like shape and kitchen magic happens with a wave of a spatula. Most of us want to be able to put something satisfying, nourishing and not overly complicated on the table at the end of the day. And we do it. Over and over again. Not too very long after we have perfected the preparation of a dish, we soon become bored with it. What else can we do with this thing? Yes, comfort foods are just that, comfortable. However, after being soothed we seem to want to be excited. Esthetics count. If it looks freshly beautiful, if it interests the eye, it is likely to stimulate the taste buds and satisfy the appetite.
In these, what I like to think of as, waning days of winter, it is a bit harder, but all the more necessary to stir up interest. Knowing your roots is a particular advantage at this point in the year, chief among them is their availability. It may be that being grown underground is what intensifies the flavors or roots and tubers. As though they were hiding their lights under a bushel basket. Parsnips, interestingly enough, become sweeter if left in the ground until the first frost. The impact of carrots on eyesight is now thought by some to have been British WWII propaganda meant to terrorized German soldiers with the skill of the RAF sniper-eyed bomber pilots. Were there no carrots in Germany?
Carrots, along with their mates, celery and onions, are foundational elements in many rich winter soups and stews. So much so, that we may need to be reminded that they are delicious raw. Bugs Bunny wasn’t the only creature fond of munching that sweet and crunchy vegetable.
This week we’re offering a raw carrot and parsnip recipe called Shaved Heirloom Carrots and Parsnips. We may have walked around the other side of the table this week for a fresh perspective, but our website has many carrot and parsnip recipes, such as: Caramelized Carrots, Baked Parsnip Rosemary Fries, Creamy Parsnip & Leek Soup, Maple Roasted Carrots with Orange Zest and Carrot Ginger Soup. Check it out for these and many more tasty meal ideas from this and the other side of the table.