'Tis the season for political battles, and here in Rhode Island, the battle rages on.
It's not political.
Well, it is political, but it's not Democrat-Republican, count-the-delegates political.
It's a battle for the one true jonnycake -- our signature cornmeal pancake -- and here in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, we take this battle seriously.
Jonnycakes (a.k.a. johnnycakes. See? We can't even agree on the spelling.) can be thick or thin, made with water or milk, depending on whether you're in the East Bay area around Newport, or west of the bay, in South County.
We also agree that yellow is the cornmeal of choice for polenta, served in every Italian restaurant in this very Italian state, and for cornbread, which accompanies everything from enchiladas to brisket.
Cornmeal is, simply, a flour made from ground corn. (In some countries it's called cornflour.) The corn is dried, cleaned and steamed, and the tough outer hull removed; then the remaining endosperm is passed between rollers or stones. Cornmeal can be steel-ground, which means that the husk and germ of the kernel have been removed, or stone-ground, which retains a bit of the hull and germ, resulting in more texture and better flavor. The occasional dark specks that you see in cornmeal are harmless, residual bits of the hilar that connects the germ to the rest of the kernel. The two types are interchangeable, so whenever possible use the more flavorful stone-ground cornmeal.
Steel-ground cornmeal will last for up to six months if stored in an airtight container; for longer storage, freeze for up to two years. Stone-ground cornmeal, because it retains more of its natural oil, is more perishable, so store it in the refrigerator for up to one month, or in the freezer.
One note of caution: Not all cornmeal is gluten-free, so if this is a concern for you, be sure to read labels carefully and check with the producer.
Oh, and if you come to Rhode Island, be prepared to vote. The polls are always open on the jonnycake issue.
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates, by The Moosewood Collective. For a dome, the aim is a firm but pourable polenta. Finely ground cornmeal will cook in just a few minutes. Most medium-grind, fairly dark yellow cornmeals will take about 20 minutes to cook. Stone-ground and very coarse cornmeals can take up to 45 minutes. All of the varieties will probably need additions of water during cooking. (Note: the original recipe calls for 1 Tbsp fresh sage instead of parsley, and 2 tsp ground fennel instead of cumin. You can adjust the seasonings to “match” any soup or stew you're serving.) Serves 8.
4 cups water or vegetable stock (or chicken stock)
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups diced onion
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 cups cornmeal
1 medium-small butternut squash (approximately 2 lbs)
2 Tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground black pepper, or more to taste
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (optional, but recommended)
In a covered pot, bring water or stock and 1 tsp of salt to a boil. Generously oil a 2-quart or larger bowl (a glass mixing bowl works well).
While the water heats, warm the olive oil in a heavy skillet on medium heat. Cook the onions, garlic, and 1/2 tsp of salt for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are caramelized.
When the water boils, gradually pour in the cornmeal while stirring vigorously. Reduce the heat until the thickening cornmeal simmers gently. Cook, stirring frequently, until the polenta is thick and tastes done (not raw).
Meanwhile, peel and seed the squash. Use a food processor or hand grater to shred it to yield 2 cups of grated squash. Stir the squash, parsley, cumin and pepper into the sautéing onions and cook for 3-4 minutes. If the vegetables begin to stick, add a tiny bit of water. Cover and remove from heat.
When the polenta is ready, stir in the sautéed vegetables. Add the cheese, if using. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Pour the polenta into the prepared bowl and set it aside to cool at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, until firm.
One hour before serving, preheat the oven to 400°F. Invert the cooked polenta dome onto an ovenproof platter or large rimmed baking pan and bake for about 30 minutes, or until hot. Surround it with a beautiful stew, or serve on its own, cut into wedges.
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