Do what I say, not what I do.
When I say store your stone-ground, super-nutritious, little-flecks-of-goodness cornmeal in the refrigerator, please do it.
If you don't, then please don't make polenta when one of the finest chefs in town is coming to your house for dinner, because you will have to throw out the whole beautiful loaf when you taste it (thank goodness you taste!) and discover that the cornmeal went a bit off as it sat in your cupboard, instead of in the fridge where it belonged.
Cornmeal comes in three textures -- fine, medium, and coarse -- and it's ground in one of two ways. Stone-ground meal 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 or freezer.
Steel-ground cornmeal (often labeled "enriched and degerminated", like the Quaker cornmeal that comes in the canister) 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, but will be happier in the refrigerator or freezer.
Depending on the type of corn used, cornmeal can be one of four colors. If you live in Rhode Island, it's likely to be white, used primarily for jonnycakes. 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"), Indian pudding, cakes, tarts and muffins.
In Navajo tradition, white cornmeal symbolizes the male and yellow the female. The two meals are combined into a corn pudding and put into a wedding basket before the ceremony. The couple shares the pudding during the ceremony to symbolize their marriage.
In Rhode Island, we'd probably never combine the two, but from now on, at least in my pantry, we're definitely storing them side-by-side in the fridge.
Polenta, squash and cheese loaf
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates, by The Moosewood Collective. For a loaf, 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. Serves 8.
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large diced onion
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 cups grated butternut squash (1 small squash)
2 Tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tsp ground black pepper, or more to taste
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
In a covered pot, bring water, stock and salt to a boil. Generously oil a loaf pan, or coat with cooking spray.
While the water heats, warm the olive oil in a heavy skillet on low heat. Cook the onions for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are caramelized. Stir the squash, parsley, and pepper into the 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 water boils, gradually pour in the cornmeal while stirring vigorously with a wire whisk. Reduce the heat until the thickening cornmeal simmers gently. Cook, stirring frequently, until the polenta is thick and tastes done (not raw), about 5 minutes.
When the polenta is ready, stir in the sautéed vegetables. Add the cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Pour the polenta into the prepared loaf pan 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 loaf 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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