When I moved back to Iowa in my mid-20's, one of my friends frequently asked if I had met any good corn-fed Iowa boys. For so long, my answer was no, no, and NO! That is, until Husband came around. In him, I found my corn-fed Iowa boy (via Indiana, but after age 4 he was officially a corn-fed Iowa boy). All this corn-fed love has seemed to have another influence on me...in the form of food. I seem to be obsessed with cooking with corn. You may envision me cooking with yummy Iowa corn from the cob. But, no, you'd be wrong. I'm currently obsessed with corn in its ground form.
Almost every dish I've been wanting to do as of late contains ground corn in one form or another. From Pan-Seared Polenta to Chili with Hominy to Jalapeno Cornbread to Turkey Verde with Hominy to Grit Souffle, I think I'm officially stuck on ground corn. It's like I'm trying to channel life just off the Mayflower.
Every time I mention a new meal idea that mysteriously contains ground corn, Husband just nods politely with a amused smirk floating across his face. He's graciously putting up with my corn fetish. I don't want to push my luck for too long but for now he's happily getting his fill of corn.
One form of ground corn that I am fairly new to is polenta. In fact, the first time I ate polenta was at the hands of a former nun in the northern hills of Italy on my 30th birthday trip. I arrived at the ex-nun's home at the hands of my American friends who have spent the majority of their life living in Italy. She graciously invited us over for a meal and to talk about her life. The meal? Pan-fried polenta and gnocchi. The polenta was thinly sliced and in the shape of a rectange and simply spiced with salt and pepper. It's shape and consistency was a more savory version of my Grandma Hazel's cornmeal mush that she would often make for us for breakfast topped with real maple syrup (is there any other kind?). The gnocchi was speckled with spinach and also minimally spiced. It was a carb-laden meal, for sure, but simple, beautiful and filling. I have so many happy memories of that meal, partially due to the wonderful conversation had around the table in her beautifully sparse home (much like the food she cooked) in the plush mountains of Italy.
If you are unfamiliar, polenta is typically made from coarse-ground corn and mixed with water over heat until thickened. You can eat it in its soft form, spread it in a pan to cool and set up or bake it in the oven. It then can be cut it into various sizes, grilled, pan-seared and served with a sauce of your choice. Once you get started, there are really many options and variations to this form of ground corn.
Until recently, I had only tried adding polenta to my meals from the premade tubes you can buy in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. In fact, the first meal that I made for Husband, I made spicy polenta fries from premade polenta. It was crumbly and didn't much resemble fries but the flavor was promising. After many so-so experiences with premade polenta, I was inspired by a visit to a local restaurant to try my hand at making polenta from scratch. What ensued was a dinner of "Wow's" and fulll-mouthed "So, good's!" which made me vow to never ever buy premade polenta again. It just does not do this dish justice.
Making homemade polenta is really pretty simple depending on what method you choose. I chose to bake polenta, which takes some time, but it is so very low maintenance that you can clean, fold laundry, read a good book while you enjoy the lofting smell of cornmeal, water & olive oil melding together.
So, here is my ode to cornmeal. The dish that began my obsession of polenta and has now made me a polenta evangelist. Now, therefore, go out and make only homemade polenta! No tubes aloud. Also, no tube tops. But that goes without saying. Forgive me, my message is a work in progress.
(Polenta recipe adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine, January 2010)
8 cups water
5 tbsp. olive oil, divided
2 tsp. coarse salt
2 cups cornmeal (Coarse-ground is typically recommend but I used regular cornmeal and had excellent results)
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. chopped fresh chives or 2 tbsp. dried chives
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put a 9x13 glass or pyrex baking dish on a baking sheet. Combine water, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and coarse salt in a dish. Pour in cornmeal in 1/2 cup increments and mix carefully to avoid spilling.
Place baking sheet with cornmeal mix in oven. Bake for about 1 hour. Add pepper and chives and stir to blend. Bake 20 minutes. Stir mixture again and use spatula to keep mixture even on top. Continue to bake the polenta until it is very thick for 20-30 more minutes. Cool at room temperature until polenta is cool and firm. You may want to use the back of a metal spatula to make sure the top of the poleta is even and flat. This can be made up to 2 days ahead of serving. Wrap the baking dish with plastic wrap and chill.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Cut polenta into 8 squares. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add polenta squares and work in batches. Saute' until crisp and brown about 8 minutes on each side (if you choose to make the polenta ahead of time, pull it out about an hour in advance to allow it to reach room temperature or allow for 12 minutes per side). Transfer pan-seared polenta to a cookie sheet and place in oven to keep warm until all polenta is finished.
How to serve? So many choices. You can make any type of tomato sauce that you would normally place over pasta and use it with this polenta. For this dish at home, I just pepped up a jarred pasta sauce with fresh basil, garlic, red pepper flakes, diced fire-roasted tomatoes & freshly ground pepper. To add a little more veggies, I also sauteed onions and yellow squash and placed on top of the sauce when plating.
I reccomend serving this dish in a wide bowl. Ladel the desired tomato sauce in bottom of bowl, top with pan-seared polenta square and top with a dollop of ricotta cheese. Sprinkle with fresh parmesan cheese and some fancy salad greens (optional).