Fresh corn polenta
The “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash – are the key crops of a method of companion planting first used by indigenous North Americans. All grow symbiotically and are harvested at a similar time to provide fresh produce or larder goods when dried and preserved.
Genetically we have moved a long way from the origins of these vegetables. In regards to growth and disease resistance, huge progress has been made; as far as nutrition and resilience is concerned, maybe not so much.
Corn is a perfect snapshot of this as most of what we buy now – both fresh and dried – comes from sweet corn varieties. The varieties that were cultivated centuries ago were starchier and the kernels much more hardy. Several years ago I began milling maize in Tasmania from older varieties such as painted corn. We ruined several mills in the process, as the kernels can be so firm they destroy the grinding mechanisms. But the end result was like night and day in regards to polenta.
Traditionally, polenta is not the name used for the actual ground maize, or corn meal, but rather it is the dish that results from cooking the meal in stock and, often, finishing it with various cheeses. The polenta that I made from the painted corn had a much more complex and creamier consistency, plus it didn’t leave a heavy feeling in the stomach after eating it.
Cooking polenta as a central part of a meal or the vehicle for protein is commonly associated with Italian cuisine. I have had very memorable meals where the finished polenta is tipped on a board down the centre of the table to be used almost to bind the rest of the components that are presented. It’s a foundation of a meal but also a dish itself.
Tracing the origins of corn through North America and into central Mesoamerica becomes a parallel study in anthropology. It’s extraordinary how many cuisines it has become the foundation of and how its influence has spread beyond food. But sitting down to a plate of cheesy polenta is as simplistic a joy as comfort food can provide.
Fresh corn polenta
Serves 4 as an ideal side to a meal
4 heads corn
200ml vermouth or sweet wine
2 cups (or 1 bunch) lovage
100ml light olive oil
1.5 litres stock (vegetable or animal), with some extra on standby
200g ground maize (corn meal)
200g fresh goat’s curd
freshly ground pepper
Peel the heads of corn and cut the kernels off two of the cobs. Slice the shallot and place it and the corn kernels in a pot with the butter, vermouth or sweet wine and 200 millilitres of water. Put the lid on the pot and boil rapidly for 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Lightly season with salt and then purée in a blender (or using a stick blender) to a thick soup consistency. Adjust with water as necessary.
Boil the other two corncobs, then cool and cut off the kernels. Fold these kernels through the pureed mixture.
Take the lovage leaves and set a few aside for serving. Blanch the remainder in boiling water and then pour into a strainer. Squeeze the blanched leaves out so they don’t retain any water.
Heat the oil to 80ºC, then add the lovage leaves and use a stick blender to puree this into a smooth paste. Put through a fine strainer and retain the green oil.
Bring the stock to the boil in a large pot and sprinkle in the maize while whisking continually. (Choose your utensils wisely, as changing these midway through can become a messy procedure.) The quantity of stock to maize required varies wildly according to the maize variety and level of grind. You are after a smooth but not runny consistency – because this will only become obvious once the mixture comes to the boil, keep an extra amount of stock boiling next to the pot to adjust as you go.
Once the maize has been cooked to polenta set it aside and add a little salt. Fold through the corn purée and readjust the seasoning. Stir through some lemon juice to taste.
Spoon the polenta into the centre of a bowl and make an indentation in the middle using the back of the spoon. Place the goat’s curd in the centre, then grind a generous amount of pepper over the top. Drizzle the lovage oil over the dish and finish with some shredded lovage leaves on top.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Fresh corn polenta".
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