Learning to Relax: Polenta v. Cornmeal Mush
I have been a devoted follower of Marcella Hazan for many years. If you are a longtime reader you may remember some of my thoughts on the Italian Goddess of Fussy.
In that post I even touched on the torture and torment that she requires for making polenta. But really it just skimmed the surface.
For example, I left out the part where she requires that you:
Keep the water boiling at medium-high heat, and add the cornmeal in a very thin stream, letting a fistful of it run through nearly closed fingers. You should be able to see the individual grains spilling into the pot. The entire time you are adding the cornmeal, stir it with a whisk, and make sure the water is always boiling.
Being a faithful student, I have gone through that operation more times than I care to recount. Do you want to know how it works out? Well, the recipe calls for almost 2 cups of “coarse-grained imported Italian yellow cornmeal.” After dozens of fistfuls, cornmeal is all over the stove, my pouring hand is as red as a steamed lobster, and my stirring arm is already tired before the serious stirring has even begun.
Here’s the thing.
Technique is all fine and good. But if the process is so onerous that it prevents you from cooking a delicious and healthful meal, maybe, just maybe, one can be a little less fussy for a weeknight dinner.
The watershed moment occurred when I read somewhere about incorporating “cornmeal mush” into some baked casserole. The details elude me at the moment, but it was delightfully unfussy: one cup of cornmeal to four cups of liquid. Simmer until it’s done.
[Addendum posted 4/15/11 - I neglected to mention the scant 1/2T of salt added to the liquid.]
It didn’t take me long to realize that I could take a few elements from Marcella’s technique and apply it to the mush and end up with a satisfactory compromise. After all, the proportions in the two recipes were almost identical.
Instead of buying the relatively expensive imported Italian polenta, I get organic cornmeal at the Honest Weight Food Co-op. Corn is one of the foods I’m committed to buying organic these days, primarily because I’m avoiding GMOs and almost all conventional corn is genetically modified.
Then my polenta will have to suffer by being poured in slowly from a bowl while I whisk it into the boiling water. The unfussy have no interest in seeing individual grains of corn meal.
In the past, I felt there was some kind of magic in Marcella’s cooking times. So when she said to stir for one full minute, I set an egg timer and I stirred for that full minute. When she said to stir every ten minutes, I set a kitchen timer and I stirred every ten minutes, and kept a little pad with a tally of how many ten-minute increments had passed.
I am very good with following instructions.
My variation of cornmeal mush does not require such attentions. Instead I’ll give the pot a good stir when I get around to it. In the meantime it is perfectly fine simmering quietly covered on the corner of the stove.
Eventually it’s done. Still takes about 45 minutes. All of the steps are pretty much the same. But I find myself not worrying about it. And that makes me want to cook it more often. Which is great, because it’s delicious, warming and satisfying. Three things that are critical for winter cooking.
Look at me, cutting loose.