Cornmeal (Recipe: baked polenta with braised wild mushrooms)
Want some mealie meal?
Not a mealy meal, which would taste horrible, full of sand and grit.
Mealie meal, also known as mealie pap or mielie-meal, is a South African name for cornmeal, which, no matter what you call it, means dried corn kernels that have been ground, either by stone or by steel rollers.
Cornmeal comes in three textures -- fine, medium, and coarse -- and it's ground in one of two ways. Stone-ground meal, available in health food stores and, increasingly, in the regular supermarket, retains some of the hull and germ of the corn. Because of the oil in the germ, stone-ground cornmeal is more nutritious and more flavorful but does not keep for more than a few months, and must be stored in the refrigerator.
Steel-ground cornmeal (often labeled "enriched and degerminated") has had the husk and germ (and thus the oil) of the corn kernel almost completely removed. It can keep up to a year, if stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
Depending on the type of corn used, cornmeal can be one of four colors. If you live near me in Rhode Island, it's likely to be white, used primarily for jonnycakes and for breading fried onion rings; I've also tried it in biscotti. In the Southwest, blue or red cornmeal is popular for tortillas and chips. Most everywhere else, cornmeal comes in the familiar yellow, used for polenta (in fact, it's often called "polenta," just as Arborio rice is often called "risotto"), cakes, cupcakes and muffins.
In the picturesque village of Usquepaugh, Rhode Island, Kenyon's Grist Mill still grinds cornmeal the old-fashioned way, between two stones powered by a giant waterwheel set into the river below. It's one of the oldest grist mills still operating in the US, dating from the early 1700s; the current mill building was erected in 1886. They have a small shop, and a large mail-order business. Call ahead if you're in the area, and try to visit on a day when the mill is operating.
Baked polenta with braised wild mushrooms
This recipe, given to me many years ago by chef/owner Chris Douglass of Icarus Restaurant in Boston, remains an all-time favorite. Serves 8 as a first course.
2 leeks, minced
4-6 shallots, minced
8 Tbsp butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup yellow cornmeal (fine or medium granulation)
2 cups cold water
2 cups milk
1/2 cup + 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 lb total wild mushrooms (a variety -- pleurottes, shiitakes, portobellos, cepes, chanterelles)
1/2-1 tsp minced garlic (to taste)
1/4 cup Madeira wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 tsp chopped fresh thyme, or a pinch of dried thyme
1/4 tsp chopped fresh sage, or a pinch of dried sage
To make the polenta: In a large sauce pan or stock pot, sauté the leeks and shallots slowly in 2 Tbsp butter (reserve the other 2 Tbsp butter). When the leeks are soft and translucent, add the milk, 1 cup of water, and 1/2 tsp salt, and bring to a boil; while the milk is heating, combine in a bowl the remaining water and the cornmeal to make a very loose paste. When the milk boils, whisk in the cornmeal paste. Bring back to the boil, stirring rapidly to avoid lumps. Turn heat to low, and allow the polenta to simmer. Stir occasionally. After approximately 10 minutes, start to test the polenta by spooning a small amount onto a counter or plate. When cool, the polenta should be firm and set. Finish by stirring in 2 Tbsp butter and 1/2 cup of cheese. Pour into a lightly buttered mold or cake pan and allow to set. While the polenta is cooling, preheat the oven to 450°F.
To make the braised mushrooms: Clean and slice the mushrooms. In a sauté pan over medium heat, sauté garlic in 2 Tbsp butter. Add mushrooms and continue to cook until the mushrooms have become soft. Add Madeira and chicken stock, and cook until reduced to a light syrup; then add thyme and sage and finish with the remaining 2 Tbsp butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, cut polenta into 8 equal pieces, place on a buttered baking dish and top with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese. Bake for 15 minutes at 450°F. Serve polenta on warm plates, topped with the wild mushrooms. Garnish with a fresh thyme sprig.