Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Puttin' on the Grits!

If you're hungry and you don't know where to go, why don't you eat what your hunger fits...putting on the grits. Sorry, I had to go there.

No matter what you call them--Grits(Deep South), Polenta (Italy), Corn Mush (Rural West Coast), Pop (South Africa)--they all come down to one single item: ground corn.

Zea Mays, a tropical grass native to central Mexico, was first domesticated thousands of years ago. Once integrated into the culture of Mexico it became so revered that the Aztec people would literally weep if they saw it spilled on the ground. It is one of the few plants so far domesticated that, if we were to stop growing it as an agricultural crop, the plant as we know it wouldn't exist within 10 years. It simply cannot survive without human intervention.

When explorers brought this wonderful plant to Spain, it became so popular that its use quickly spread across Europe and Africa. Today there are few countries that don't grow or use corn, so the culinary uses are endless.
Basic Polenta Recipe:

6 cups water
1 tsp salt
2 cups polenta (a.k.a corn grits - a coarse ground degerminated corn)
3 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup white wine
black pepper

Boil water and salt in a large pan. Whisk in polenta and continue stirring until polenta remains suspended in the water. Reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes, stirring with the whisk every couple of minutes, scraping bottom of pan and preventing sticking. Whisk in the butter, wine and black pepper. Add salt to taste. The mixture should be thick but not lumpy. If it's too lumpy, add a little water and whisk to fix the problem.

At this point, the polenta can be served right away or it can be poured into an oiled pan and chilled for firm polenta. I personally prefer the firm variety.

Some additions for soft polenta:

Shrimp and grits--my favorite southern shrimp recipe.

Saute 1/2 cup of chopped bacon or fatback until crispy, add 1/4 cup chopped onion with 2 cloves chopped garlic. Next add a pound of peeled gulf shrimp and 2 tbsps of butter and cook for 2 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of heavy cream and a small handful of chopped parsley. Cook for 1 additional minute and pour over the soft grits/polenta.
Northern Italian--a great side dish for herb roasted chicken.

To the finished soft polenta, add crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, chopped parsley, and toasted pine nuts or hazelnut pieces.

Firm Polenta additions:

To prepare the firm polenta, cut thoroughly chilled polenta into rectangles or squares, and brown in a teflon pan with butter, or grill until warm.

Dried Cherry Sauce--for wild game, pork, or game birds.

Saute 2 tbsp garlic, 1/2 cup dried cherries, and 1 tsp chili flakes in olive oil. Add 2 cups of dry red wine, 2 tbsp honey, a pinch of dry thyme and and 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar. Reduce to 1/4 volume. Place the warmed polenta on a serving plate, top with your sliced meat, and drizzle both with the dried cherry sauce.


Wild Mushroom Polenta

Follow the instructions for basic polenta, but before adding the water, saute one pound of mixed wild mushrooms, a chopped onion, and 3 minced garlic cloves in butter. Follow the rest of the directions to the letter. This can be served soft or firm.


Try making it for breakfast with butter and salt. Then drizzle with it maple syrup or sprinkle with brown sugar.

It can be served at any time of day, with any sweet or savory topping. Polenta is so underutilized, I challenge each of my readers to try using it at least once over the next week. I dare ya'!

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