If only we knew then what we know now polenta

A short quiz.

Please choose which one of the given choices best answers the following question.

Which book wrote that American cooking has long been noted for being canned convenience and that extensive and heretofore unthought of world travel over the last decade has broadened America’s palate into something more palatable?

A) The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne, published 1961
B) The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook by David Rosengarten with Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca, published 1996

I’ll wait while you think about it.

Do, do, doo, de do.

Ok, if everyone is ready. You are correct. The answer to this trick question with no wrong answer is either A or B. 100’s for everyone.

You can stop flipping through the books’ pages looking for those verbatim sentences. While they may both be guilty of absurd statements they are not guilty of plagiarism, so I paraphrased. Choice A wrote statements such as: “M.F.K. Fisher…once noted that the basis of…cuisine…to those of America [is] the flavor of innumerable tin cans.” And, “There probably never has been such an absorbing interest in fine cuisine in the home as there is in this decade…It is also true that world travel on a scale unsurpassed in history is making the American palate more sophisticated.” Choice B wrote statements such as: “For the last 20 years, Americans have been on an incredible culinary odyssey.” And, “We rejected the sterile, pre-wrapped environment that had characterized the sale of food in America, and had come to symbolize our national indifference to freshness.” I could go on.

I’m not saying that either is wrong or right, but that both are a little ridiculous. To their credit there are some real differences between the two cookbooks. Choice A focuses on Greece while Choice B went to Asia. But, they definitely overlap on items like guacamole, lasagna, tomato sauce… and they are both so certain. So why choose grilled polenta you ask? Well, I wanted to make something with a powerful underlying meaning that would add a whole other layer to this post. Polenta doesn’t do this — in my opinion. On the other hand, I think choosing a traditional dish that cookbook authors have been proclaiming as innovative for over 35 years does make the layer a little thicker. Both books claim we stopped being potato and rice eaters and started embracing other carbohydrates. Which is true enough in a stereotypical way, but we didn’t all turn into ravenous polenta eaters either. Some of us sure, but all of us, no.

Generally, I try to equivocate my writing for precisely this reason. When I pulled the New York Times cookbook off my parent’s shelf I couldn’t stop from laughing over how much it read like Dean and DeLuca. I’m also positive (how’s that for an unequivocal statement) that a little more research would uncover another cookbook written about the 1920’s saying the same things. And further back and further, and further.

Choice A and B give different recipes for what is supposed to be the same dish. The variations the books give are similarly themed, though different. Tomato sauce, melted butter, cheese — all good. Bruschetta inspired my topping of tomato, basil and garlic with a good drizzle of olive oil and grated parmesan cheese.

Coarse ground cornmeal is recommended, but the finer ground organic cornmeal was cheaper than the course ground non-organic and since this alternative wasn’t entirely forbidden by either book I took the deal.

Yes, I really did make both recipes. One was much easier than the other. I don’t know if it’s the liquid to grain proportion, the milk, or not pre-mixing that causes the lumps and clumps, but I have to wonder if we know a clump-free preparation, why stubbornly insist on your own way? I had intended to picture both, but only one was photogenic enough to make it in. I had also intended for these to be grilled, broiled if you want to get technical.  But, when trying to broil the first batch they browned and liquified. As they cooled they firmed up again, but never re-formed into rectangular molds. Neither book warned about this. Why?

Basic Polenta

from The New York Times Cookbook

1 quart water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal, yellow or white

Bring two and a half cups of water to a boil (in the top part of a double boiler) over high heat. Add salt. In another bowl mix cornmeal with remaining 1 and a half cups of water. Add to the boiling water Reduce heat to medium, stir constantly until mixture boils. (Place top of double boiler over lower half filled with boiling water) Reduce heat to low, cover and cook 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.


from The Dean and DeLuca Cookbook

2 cups water
1 quart milk
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups yellow cornmeal (preferably coarse-ground)

In a large pot, bring water, milk and salt to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer.  Slowly pour in the cornmeal in a thin stream, all the while stirring constantly with a whisk to prevent clumps. Once added, continue to stir constantly for 30 minutes.

Serve hot or…

If you want to attempt molding and re-heating. Pour the cooked polenta into a lightly oiled baking dish about half an inch thick. Refrigerate a few hours or overnight. Remove from baking dish and cut into fancy shapes or simple rectangles.

For the tomato topping pictured. Chop 2 small tomatoes, 1 clove garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Shred up a large handful of basil. Mix it all together and stick in the fridge until dinner.

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