Small waves, ripples, a steel basin shines,
a soft sun colored stock clinks clam and oyster
shells, calamari swarm like drunken clouds,
and the kitchen becomes a haven of lost spices
and aromatics, and me, dizzy with the fumes
of roasting garlic and steaming fronds of saffron
and bay, it pulls me in, and I cross the line, drifting,
I reach over and show her the wonders of what
it is that makes me smile.
She smiles, and yeah this is a slice of life.
And I reach into the bowl of mussels, slowly,
ice melting around the shells,
sleek, black ships waiting smell of the sands
and tides of far harbors and straits…
And she turns from the mounds of chopped tomato
and vidalia to the stalks of lemon grass
and deep green Thai basil, and I show her
the way: “Come here, peel away the skin
from the base like this,”
and the room filled with the fragrance
of crushed tangerine and lemon leaves
from the single bulb of lemon grass.
And if I didn’t know better I would swear
I was standing in the groves of the Indian River,
but I wasn’t, it’s just us in the kitchen
with the greens of Mandalay,
with mussels from the heart of Hudson’s Bay.
It’s just us living the great poem of the world,
where expressing love is expressing god,
turning labor into passion, turning work into love,
and it’s really even more than this, this she and me,
it’s the way we bring to the table the East and West.
Giving to the guest what the world gave to us.
A TALE OF TWO MILLINGS
Corn, maize, ground corn, fructose, Karo corn syrup, grits, hominy/posole, self rising yellow cornmeal, yellow cornmeal/polenta, white cornmeal/polenta, alcohol, modified maize starches, corn starch, corn on the cob, niblets, creamed corn, and then there is the just plain corny, all of which shows us that corn is a miracle grain (like all grains, actually) that permeates our world from the cars we drive to the food we eat. Today we will explore what makes polenta and grits a cultural treasure where the bowl served says welcome home. Yes, grits or polenta, each signify that warming place, a food friendly home. Being from corn we know that corn/maize originated with the Native Americans of North and South America.
Our dishes are polenta with mushrooms and pancetta, and one with cheese and herbs as a baked dish. The grits recipe is shrimp (any fish) and grits, and sweet style grits.
I will concentrate on the dishes following the War Between the States in 1864, and in Italy after WWII. The Italians used barley and chestnut flour before corn was introduced. There is a library of philosophy and history around each dish, so if you have the time and pleasure, do read up on grits and polenta and enter a world of slow food and slow dinners, a world before this fast food chain frenzy we are in now. And never ever speak of instant grits, polenta or oatmeal.
The line between polenta and grits is a thin one often defined by culture but really is based upon the way it is milled. Yellow and white corn is used for both dishes. White hominy for grits is soaked in a lye solution (releases niacin for the healthy side), allowed to puff to double it’s original size, dried and milled by either stone or steel. Straight corn grits are from white corn, air dried kernels and then milled into a fine white meal. Polenta style is milled from dried corn either between stones or steel. It is the soaking that makes the big difference, and in the end it is the way it is prepared and served that shows the larger cultural definition.
Fine ground corn is generally for cornmeal used for baking cornbread, hush puppies, dusting fish and even for egg rolls. We use white and yellow coarse, flaked and semi-fine for polenta and grits. Polenta tends to be a finer grind than what is used in Georgia for our coarse ground grits. I have cooked the same dish using grits and polenta where the flavor and texture differences are sublime and yet minute. This is where the beauty of living to eat and love our foods surpasses the mere eating to live. We truly do live in a gifted community when it is possible to enjoy the little things to such a high degree.
Polenta is used in two ways, as loose as mashed potatoes and as a firm cake. After the polenta is cooked you pour it out onto a pan and let it set/chill, then cut into cakes. When you are ready to eat heat them and top with the entrée or a sauce. The bible of Italian cookery, The Silver Spoon, has 31 recipes for polenta, each a winner. I will show how the creamy can be shaped and cooled to use as a starch for a dinner dish.
Grits in the South are creamy and sometimes a bit thick, they can be either savory or sweet. However it is to be noted that sweet is called “Yankee grits”. I find nothing wrong with a bowl of honeyed grits with dried and fresh fruits, nuts and butter as an after dinner snack. Savory grits are accompanied by red eye gravy, breakfast, seafood, and even with sausages or beef dishes. The most famous grit dish these days is shrimp and grits, and they are everywhere, fun to eat from place to place just to taste the different techniques. My grandmother made her own grits by soaking and hand rubbing the hominy, today we have Logan Turnpike (I am using these for our recipes), Red Mule, Anson Mills, Falls Creek and many other Georgia or Carolina grits to choose from, and each is delicious.
Grits get dressed up every few years or so. I remember in the early 80s they started making grit balls and frying them up in Boston. It was then that the Southern grits meal became national, and that’s OK. Immigrants to the South love picking up on these wonderful milled grains and taking on the many flavors that can be built from the humble hominy. My ancestors would say to leave them alone, that grits are perfect with butter and salt, but as a grain they take so well to so many flavors and ingredients that it’s a sometimes a shame to leave them alone, it really is fun to dress them up for dinner or even to risk being called a Yankee for mixing in sweet things and fruits. Grits are fun, let yourself go and enjoy all that they have to offer as a base, side dish or centerpiece to your meals.
Grits and polenta are not just breakfast foods or supplements to “fill up” on. They have their place as cultural icons for both the South and for Italy. Thankfully, both have risen from being the source of malnutrition as a poor peoples dish and into the lexicon as being a source for cultural identity. Why so much about culture here? Because grits and polenta kept generations alive and working when there was little else to supplement their diets. As dietary science and knowledge progressed we learned to use these foods as additions, not as sole content to our meals. Northern Italy and the American South are both built upon “puts meat on your bones” ideologies in regards to ground corn meal.
Remember: The longer you cook cornmeal dishes the easier they are to digest. A long simmered polenta is superior in all ways to a quick dish recipe. You can make polenta a day ahead for cakes, but for creamy add water to the pan and then the leftovers, stir and cook as you would for fresh. This holds for grits as well (corn pone anyone?). If you are to be away from the stove you can put the thick polenta in a pot with a little extra water, cover it and bake 250 degrees, stirring occasionally until it is cooked (time varies on how much and how thick).
POLENTA WITH PANCETTA AND WILD MUSHROOMS
The polenta that I am using is La Polenta del Mulino di Pova, a white cornmeal. You can also use Red Mule polenta milled corn. Our mushroom dish is creamy, not thick for cakes. Stir polenta every ten minutes for a minute during a 45 minute cook time. Keep heat on low. Use a heavy bottomed stainless steel pot or a copper pot for your polenta. Place a top on the pan with about a fifth uncovered to keep it from over steaming. Use the best and freshest “wild” mushrooms available. If no chanterelles, cepes, porcini, morels or hen of the woods are available use portabella, shiitake, maitake, or crimini. The pork product is pancetta, a kind of Italian bacon, if you can’t find it a thick smoked bacon or Canadian bacon will do very well. If you have access to stores with a variety of cured Spanish and Italian meats then try out ones that interest you or the butcher recommends.
1/2 cup polenta
3 cups water or chicken stock
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/3 teaspoon crushed red pepper
After it has cooked to creamy texture. You may need to add a little water along the way, don’t worry, go ahead and add in one ounce increments.
And there you have a basic polenta. To build upon this all purpose dish
stir in the following:
1 ounces extra virgin olive oil (after it has cooked)
3 ounces fresh mozzarella
Use a one quart sauce pot. Add the water and seasonings then turn heat on high. Slowly stir in the polenta. When it boils turn it down to low. Partially cover the pot and stir every ten minutes for the full cook time.
1 ounce Extra virgin olive oil, a slightly fruity one
6 ounces pancetta, diced
6 ounces wild mushrooms, sliced
1/3 cup leeks, washed and sliced
3 cloves garlic, shaved
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
In a large skillet on medium heat cook the pancetta, as it crisps add the other ingredients and cook for ten minutes. Keep warm.
Divide polenta between four small bowls and spoon the pancetta-mushroom mixture over the polenta. Garnish with roasted red bell peppers and olives. If they are available use black truffle shavings in this version, or just sprinkle truffle salt over the final dish. It is delicious and with the truffle perhaps one of the best polenta dishes I have ever had the pleasure to prepare and eat.
POLENTA WITH FONTINA AND FRIED EGG
Make the basic polenta but don’t add extra water. Then add:
2 ounces grated fontina cheese
1 ounce gorgonzola cheese
3 ounces butter
1 ounce extra virgin olive oil
Combine over heat so that it all melts. Pour into roasting pan and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove and cut into circles or squares from large to small so that you have four sets of three each.
4 eggs, fried sunny side up
4 ounces fontina, grated
6 leaves fresh basil cut in strips
Arrange polenta cakes on each plates into a rectangle pattern, melt fontina over the polenta cakes. Put an egg on top of each and then the basil. Serve warm.
Polenta cakes are fun and the variations are as limitless as your imagination. Tomato sauces, cheese sauces, olive oil emulsions and really just about anything you would do to a pizza you can do with polenta cakes. Also, you can use various stocks and even dairy creams for your cooking liquid.
GRITS AND SHRIMP
I am using Georgia grits, RED MULE GRITS, that are stone ground for this recipe. Once you do this you will never go back to the instant powders. Slow food is good food. Just remember that and you will be fine! Slow food does not necessarily mean slow cooked either, it means heritage and heirloom, local farming, slow growth stock for your meats and an attention to the freshest herbs and ingredients. When they are available use the Georgia coast white shrimp or Carolina coast. If fresh shrimp are not around then use the freshest fish that you can find. I have cooked it with wahoo, mahi mahi, tilapia/perch, mangrove snapper, catfish and striped bass each to fine results. There is no mystery to grits, just a good local mill and slow cook time; that is the key to great grits.
1 cup grits, soak in water and scoop off what floats to the top before cooking, then pour off water.
3 cups water or chicken stock
½ cup milk
4 ounces sweet cream butter
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/3 teaspoon black pepper
Cook the grits with all ingredients on low heat. Careful not to burn the bottom so after it comes to first boil turn it down to low and stir often. Cook from 30 to 45 minutes. If necessary add a little water as it cooks to keep it from becoming too thick, you do want them to be a bit runny. If you want to make cheese grits just add cheddar cheese during the last three minutes cook time.
2 ounces butter
2 dozen large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 each red and green pepper cut into 24 strips
1 Vidalia onion, thin sliced
2 cloves garlic, shaved
1 local cucumber, pickle sized, firm
1 ounce Worcestershire sauce, Lea & Perrins
1 ounce Pickapeppa Sauce
Sautee onions, peppers and garlic, on high heat until they just begin to crisp. Add shrimp and cucumber and sauté until shrimp turns white, add sauces and lime, and cook another two minutes, stirring often.
Divide grits between four plates. Divide shrimp dish over the grits. Squeeze a little more lime and sprinkle with Mexican fresh cheese.
If you want to spice it up more with sauces just make a basic gravy and spoon over the shrimp. If you are using other fish for this then dust the fish with tapioca starch and sweet potato starch before sautéing to give it a sweeter flavor and crisper texture.
½ cup grits
3 cups water
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt
Cook the grits by the long cook method. This will yield 3 cups cooked grits.
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup dried fruit i.e. raisins, cranberries, figs, plums or apple
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
¼ cup honey
Cook on low heat until the sugars have dissolved. Add a little more cream if necessary. Divide between four bowls. Top with crystallized ginger and fresh fruit. This is the dessert style. For breakfast Yankee grits just add a tablespoon butter and a teaspoon sugar, then a little jelly and stir it together next to your bacon and eggs.
October really does
Bring everything together
In my world of love, work and words.
Like the cool winds weaving
And bright leaves lingering,
My love herself just seems
Ever more beautiful,
The language and spirit
Of the table is stronger,
More flavorful, and then
I walk more briskly,
Talk smoothly of rhymes
And memorable poems,
Speak softly of dreams
And the harvest moon…
Yea, any month, what a month,
What a beautiful place to be.