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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.

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