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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Fried mush, johnny cakes, and polenta

I grew up in Chicago. I stress that because I used to wonder in retrospect how my mom, from a German family in a small, central-Illinois city, came to make mush, which I think of as southern. But she did. I don’t remember the process, but I remember the result: slices of mush, probably fried in margarine (war time, you know), and served with maple syrup. Mush is simply cooked cornmeal, either white or yellow, allowed to sit, usually in a loaf pan, until it is firm. It turns out it is common on the eastern seaboard and in the Southeast. Even the Amish eat it.

Lately I’ve been fixing fried mush occasionally for my breakfast. I fry it in butter, never margarine, until it is crispy on the outside and soft inside. With pure maple syrup, it’s a real treat. I mentioned it to a friend who came by one morning, and he made a face. But when he talked, he said, “We call that a johnny cake.” Also known as hoecake in the South, johnny cake is often more a fried gruel than the solidified mush. Today it is common in New England, and some say it originated in Rhode Island. Truth is, it probably came from South Carolina.

And all this use of ground corn traces back to the indigenous people of this land.

But take a great jump across the pond to Italy, where they have the same dish and call it polenta. I was well grown before I knew a thing about polenta. In fact, I discovered it when I wanted to make a casserole that was sort of  international in flavor—a Mexican-style meat and bean sauce between layers of polenta instead of tortillas. I found I could buy ready-made polenta in the store, shaped like fat round sausages, and slice it. I’ve also cooked it in a cake pan, sometimes adding whole kernel corn, and sliced it into wedges. Wonder where that recipe is that told me how to make a mushroom ragout to put on it.

Recently I tried making soft polenta and was really pleased with the result. Italians sometimes substitute soft polenta for pasta, and I tried a new recipe for roasted meatballs (I get so frustrated trying to get an even crust on them when frying) in marinara sauce with soft polenta on the side. To make it even easier, the recipe called for ready-made “good quality” marinara and specified Rao brand, which I found in the store.

So here’s the recipe for soft polenta. Be forewarned: it takes a lot of time and a lot of stirring. But it’s even good, served warm and alone, for breakfast.

Soft Polenta


4 cups chicken stock, preferably low sodium

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup yellow corneal

1 tsp. kosher salt

½ tsp. black pepper

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

½ cup crème fraiche, or substitute a bit less sour cream

2 Tbsp. butter

            Pour broth into a deep pot, because it will splash vigorously as it cooks. In fact, I also recommend wearing hot pad mitts while stirring. Add garlic and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium, and slowly and cautiously, stir in the cornmeal, a bit at a time. Add salt and pepper. This is when you have to stir and stir to prevent the mixture from clumping and/or scorching. Stir from the bottom of the pan, where it’s likely to form a congealed layer. It’s cooked when the mixture thickens, but this can take 10-15 minutes. You can step away from stirring periodically for a few seconds—to rest your stirring arm, if nothing else—but don’t turn your back on it for long.

I also found that vigorous boiling and spitting a hazard, so I turned the heat to low for brief spells and then back up again.

When it is sufficiently thick, take if off the burner and stir in the cheese, crème fraiche, and butter, and stir in thoroughly.

Serve hot. If serving with marinara, let the two sauces overlap in the middle of the plate.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

A light summer lunch

It’s been a while since I cooked for my friend, Heather. She was once a work-study student in my office (neither of us are saying how long ago) and after graduation worked for the publisher Harcourt Brace. I thought I had steered her toward a good literary career, but then she went off track and went to culinary school. Today she’s the chef at a popular, upscale bistro/restaurant.

I can’t remember when or why we started doing lunch at the cottage, but it was after my hip surgery when I couldn’t get out to meet anyone at restaurants. We took turns—I’d cook, and then next time she’d bring lunch. For me, it’s a bit intimidating to cook for someone with her culinary skills and background, but yesterday was my turn.

I fixed tomato slices with a tonnato sauce and an avocado/cucumber salad and served baguette slices.  Tonnato is an Italian tuna sauce that once you discover it, you may be tempted to use on everything from chicken and veal to vegetables. I even had a dab on the tuna that was left over the other night.

I’ve tried several recipes for tonnato and like this one best. Unfortunately, it is not the recipe in my cookbook, Gourmet on a Hot Plate (don’t let that stop you from using the book).

Sauce Ingredients:

5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

3 oz. can good tuna packed in olive oil, drained

¼ c. mayonnaise

2 Tbsp. capers, drained

2 tsp. lemon juice

2 anchovy fillets

1 garlic clove, minced

2 Tbsp. fresh or 1 tsp. dried basil

Put all ingredients in food processor and process until smooth.

Use large, fresh tomatoes. Slice thickly, plate, and spoon sauce over. Pepper liberally but watch out for salt—the sauce is already a bit salty. Garnish with fresh basil (or chopped cilantro or parlsey, but basil is better). Average serving is two tomato slices, though I can usually only eat one.

Avocado/cucumber salad

1 medium cucumber, seeded and cubed

2 avocados, diced

4 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

1 clove garlic, minced

2 green onions, chopped

Salt and pepper

Juice of ¼ large lemon

Juice of 1 lime

2 Tbsp. crumbled Feta cheese

Mix it all together and chill well before serving. Serves four. Can be halved.

Heather said it was a perfect light summer lunch. Couldn’t ask for better praise.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Burgers with a twist

After several days of picking my way around red and green chili in New Mexico, I was ready for some down-home Texas food. But I was also a bit unprepared for a last-minute request for dinner for four. Burgers were the answer—but with a twist. I had that pound of ground lamb in the freezer.

Lamb can be controversial—some people dislike it, their dislike verging on hate, and some love it. I fall into the latter category, grew up eating leg of lamb dinners and savoring cold lamb sandwiches the next day. Lamb burgers sounded just right to me.

I had a recipe but not all the ingredients, so I adjusted it (who, me? Tinker with a recipe? Of course I did1).

For lamb burgers:

½ c. seasoned panko (I would have preferred plain, but this used up on leftover item in the freezer

1 large shallot, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp. dried oregano

¾ tsp. salt

½ tsp. finely ground pepper (I do not like fresh ground, because I don’t like to bite into a large piece of pepper)

1 lb. ground lamb

Mix thoroughly by hand and shape into four patties. I pan fried these instead of grilling. Since lamb is greasy, I did not add oil to the skillet. But what was important—I got the skillet hot before I added the patties. This gave them a nice crust. On my hot plate I used the medium setting and cooked until patties were medium, neither rare nor well done.

Serve with or without buns. Offer toppings of lettuce, tomato, red onion, feta, and tzatziki sauce. My cookbook, Gourmet on a Hot Plate, has a tzatziki sauce recipe, but I even simplified that.

Easy tzatziki sauce:

1 cup plain Greek yogurt

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Half a cucumber, peeled, seeded, and grated

1 tsp. dried dill weed

½ tsp. lemon juice

Mix it all together.

As I suspected, grandson Jacob did not like the meat—he’s not a big meat eater. I was glad I had asked him to cut his burger in half before he ate. I had the other half for lunch the next day. These burgers got a five-star rating from the adults in the family, and I have voed to keep ground lamb in my freezer all the time.