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March 18, 2008

Cornmeal (Recipe: polenta dome) {vegetarian, gluten-free}

Cornmeal2

'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.

One thing we all agree on is that jonnycakes are made from Rhode Island stone-ground white cap flint cornmeal, an item that can be found on the shelves of every local grocery store.

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.

Available in granulations from fine to coarse, cornmeal can be baked into cookies, cakes, pancakes and cornbread, or stirred into a porridge, cou cou, or mush.

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.

Polenta dome

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.

Ingredients

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)

Directions

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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Baked polenta with braised wild mushrooms
Lemon-currant johnnycake biscotti
Sweet potato bread
Whole wheat pizza crust
Indian pudding

Comments

I haven't tried johnnycakes/jonnycakes yet, Lydia, but I'm a huge fan of cornmeal.
And it's also a big part of our food scene here - loads of Italian descendants in Sao Paulo (including yours truly).

I once tried collecting recipes for these johnnycakes. I had to stop, there were just too many.
Love corn meal in all it's many forms.
You gather so much info here!

All things happen for a reason - and today that reason (this post) lead me to your 2006 post on sweet cream butter with a recipe for lemon-currant jonnycake biscotti.

I can hear that Irving Berlin song in the background, "Heaven... I'm in heaven..."

Just cleaned out my pantry and I am out of polenta, none in the fridge either where I usually keep an open one. The best dish I had was a polenta cake that had oozing mascarpone cheese in it.

Ahh what a perfect idea to change up the shape. And oh does that cou-cou look good!

Patricia, I'd never had jonnycakes until I moved to Rhode Island. They are a very local specialty. What kinds of wonderful Brazilian foods are made with cornmeal?

MyKitchen, here in RI one must take sides on the jonnycake issue. My own preference is thin and crispy.

Sandie, I worked on the biscotti recipe for weeks, and finally got them to be the taste and texture I love. I developed them for a Blogging-by-Mail exchange, and my first good batch went off to Australia.

Veron, that polenta cake sounds to-die-for.

Callipygia, the dome is so dramatic, especially surrounded by a black bean and sweet potato stew. Can you envision the beautiful colors?

I think I'll stay out of the jonnycake battle and leave that to someone better qualified than me. Nice tip on adding water to cooking polenta, especially the longer cooking stone ground types, having cooked some once and not being happy with the result.

The Polenta recipe sounds so so good! I've not made polenta molded like this before, certainly a must do. Usually I make it in a pot, then let it set up in a pan. I then slice the polenta and sautee it with herbs and spices. Your version with the squash mixed into it sounds much tastier.

I've been smitten with jonnycakes ever since I first read about them as a child in history class. But, I've never had one! Scandalous. I must get the proper polenta and make them.

I did make a batch of Johnnycakes once for a July 4th breakfast, and they were wonderful! The polenta dome sounds like a showstopper!

Neil, properly-cooked polenta is dreamy, and improperly cooked polenta (which I have made many times) is like wallpaper paste. Like rice, each type and each grind behaves a bit differently.

Katia, it's so much fun to mold polenta! I love to spread some on a sheet pan and let it set, then use cookie cutters to make shapes with it. The dome is really dramatic.

Sher, you know I'll be happy to send you (and any Pantry readers) some authentic Rhode Island jonnycake meal. Might even throw in a box of sea salt.... email to me if you'd like some.

TW, it's amazing how a simple ingredient like cornmeal can morph into something dramatic, just by changing its shape. Jonnycakes are everywhere in Rhode Island, never more so than at the ubiquitous May Breakfasts that every church in the state hosts on the first Sunday in May.

that's a very interesting recipe Lydia! I'd love to taste one of these..

The polenta sounds delicious! This is a dish that always amazed me since really, cornmeal is such a stunningly simple ingredient, its hard to imagine it becoming a real dish.

Next time I make polenta, I'd like to try freezing it, cutting into molds, and deep frying for something extra healthy!

Stella, it's such a fun and easy dish to make, and adds instant interest to a platter of any kind of stew, or even surrounded by a salad.

Mike, I've never tried freezing cooked polenta, but I don't see why it wouldn't work, especially if you're planning to cook it a second time. It would be great on the grill, too.

We eat polenta a lot here and in the South (because of the Italian heritage), there's sweet cornmeal cake, there's a type of soup we make here with cornmeal (which I believe is something of an Italian origin, but I'm not sure), it's really creamy and when it's ready we cracked a couple of eggs in it, they cook rapidly because of the heat... It's so good! In my family, we usually make that soup when someone has a cold. It really makes you sweat! :)

oh a polenta dome!!! awoooooooooooo how i love thee :)

Patricia, that soup sounds amazing. I never realized there was so much Italian-inspired food in Brazil.

Aria, same here!

Growing up in Rhode Island, we had jonnycakes all the time. Mom used to serve them with pan fried steak and we poured maple syrup over the cakes. Yum.

I add a tablespoon or two of cornmeal to my waffle batter and it gives it a great subtle crunch. A polenta dome sounds delish!

Betsy, maple syrup is the standard at our house, too!

Amy, that's a great tip for waffles. One of these days I'm going to treat myself to a waffle iron...

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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