Alimentary, My Dear
Mush Makes the Meal—
From Porridge to Polenta
By Tamia Nelson
October 21, 2008
When the time comes to plan a meal (or a menu), I frequently rely on simple, hearty dishes. Peasant fare, in other words. That’s not surprising. I’m descended from a long line of peasants. My grandmother was born in a potato field. Both my grandfathers were life-long gardeners, and their fathers had soil ground so deep under their fingernails that no soap could touch it. My great-grandparents farmed out of necessity. The choice before them was stark: work the land or go hungry. Along the way, they also learned to make the most of whatever the land yielded. They ate simple meals, to be sure, but they ate well. You could say their meals were simply delicious.
Take cornmeal mush, for instance. Check the baking aisle at your local HyperMart or food co-op and you’ll find yellow and white cornmeal galore, in a bewildering variety of bags, boxes, and tins. A two-nations-separated-by-a-common-language note is probably in order here. When cornmeal leaves the States and crosses the Pond, it becomes maize flour. In other words, US corn is UK maize. By whatever name it’s known, however, making cornmeal is pretty straightforward, if somewhat time-consuming. Just strip the kernels from the cobs, dry them, and then grind them into a coarse flour. Once upon a time, cornmeal was ground by hand in querns, using a cobble and a stone dish. Later, large circular grindstones replaced the quern, and waterpower (or sometimes horsepower) replaced human muscle. You can still buy stone-ground cornmeal. It’s more nutritious than its modern “steel-ground” counterpart, since the hull and germ are retained. Unfortunately, this also makes the stone-ground meal more perishable. Long-term storage requires refrigeration. That’s why steel-ground cornmeal is more commonly seen on HyperMart shelves. If it’s stored in a cool, dry place, it keeps just about forever. It’s also cheaper.
Paddlers have the luxury of choice, however. Long-term storage isn’t often an issue, even on Big Trips. Just keep the river out of your cornmeal—whether stone-ground or steel-ground—and you’ll be fine. And it doesn’t matter whether you prefer yellow cornmeal to white, either. Both will work in any recipe, though a passion for authenticity (or personal taste) may lead you to choose one over the other. Southern cooks are often partial to white cornmeal, for instance, whereas New England cooks incline toward yellow.
In any case, cornmeal is a versatile staple. Use it to bread fish for frying—it makes a wonderfully crisp crust. Or bake muffins and cornbread in camp. (If that’s too much trouble, just bake cornmeal muffins at home before you head out to the put-in.) Or make pancakes with it, or corn pone, or corn dogs. All of these are great ways to work cornmeal into your trip menu, but if simplicity is the order of the day, you have another alternative: mush. And…
Mush is a Minimalist’s Dream
OK. I know what you’re thinking. (At least, I think I do.) The word “mush” doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? So let’s call it polenta, instead. Polenta (that’s Italian for…you guessed it…mush made from cornmeal) is peasant food at its simplest and most basic—and, yes, it’s simply delicious. It’s also the starting point for a wide range of dishes, suited to every meal from breakfast to dinner. In fact, polenta is so good that it’s been embraced by Foodies, and today you’ll find it on the menus of some of the country’s most expensive restaurants. Yet now, having climbed the greasy pole and started giving itself airs, this one-time peasant fare is once again moving down market. You can even buy it ready-made in rural HyperMarts. Go figure. Fashion is indifferent to irony.
It’s also immune to common sense. For some unknown reason, culinary folklore holds that polenta is a “difficult” dish, beyond the abilities of everyday cooks. To which I reply, Piffle! It’s peasant food, right? So here’s a recipe for basic polenta that’s almost as easy as boiling water…
Quick and Easy Polenta
Makes 3 cups
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 cup cornmeal (yellow is traditional, but white is fine, too)
A Preliminary Note: Have all your tools and ingredients ready before you start. This dish comes together fast. I use a squat, three-quart pot, and a whisk or stirring spoon. Total cooking time? A few minutes longer than it takes to bring water to a boil.
Put cornmeal, water, and salt together in your pot and place it where the fire is hottest. Stir constantly. As the cornmeal begins to take up water, the mush will thicken, rapidly becoming stiffer and more viscous. When it begins to bubble and pop, move the pot out of the hot spot (or throttle back your stove) and continue to stir. The polenta will soon be so thick that it pulls away from the bottom of the pot as you force your spoon through it. When that happens you’re done. Does this sound easy? It is. But I can’t leave you without uttering a word of WARNING: Polenta can bubble with all the fury of a Yellowstone Basin mudpot, throwing blobs of scalding hot cornmeal right out of the kettle and into your lap. This is not a good way to start (or end) the day. So if your mush begins to act out, you have to act fast. Lift the pot from the flame and redouble your stirring until it settles down.
Here it is again, in pictures taken in my “test kitchen.” The essential ingredients—meez, in chef-speak—couldn’t be much simpler: salt, water, and cornmeal. On the left is a large saucepan containing three cups of salted water. A cup of cornmeal stands at the ready beside it. On the right, you can see the blur of vigorous whisking, as I fold the cornmeal into the near-boiling water. A hint: You can’t be lazy here. If you don’t stir briskly, your polenta will be lumpy. Still, a few lumps won’t spoil the mush. Just resolve to use a little more elbow grease next time.
Are you wondering what the photo on the right shows? Well, cooked polenta is more than formless mush. It can be molded and shaped, too. Spoon warm polenta into a suitable container, let it cool, pop it out, and cut it into thick slices. Prepared this way, polenta has few equals as…
A Take-Along Treat
Start with a mold. I used an empty one-quart plastic yogurt container, but a standard loaf pan also works well. Grease the inside surface lightly with canola oil or corn oil. You’ll also need a sheet of plastic wrap. Cook the polenta as outlined above. When it’s done, just spoon the mush into the oiled mold. (Dipping your spoon in water makes this job less messy.) Then press the plastic wrap down onto the exposed surface to prevent the polenta from drying out and forming a hard crust. Now pop the filled mold into the refrigerator for at least two hours before removing the plastic wrap, decanting the chilled polenta, and slicing it into one-inch-thick rounds. Lastly, replace the slices in the mold for transport (or storage till it’s time to head out). Keep the polenta cool under way, just to be safe.
A couple of hints: You can store refrigerated polenta in the mold for a couple of days before slicing if you want. Then, if the polenta is reluctant to slide out, loosen it by running the blade of a thin knife around the outside edge before upending the mold and tapping the solidified mush free. (You can also try gently squeezing the sides of a plastic container to encourage the contents to move on.)