By Jackie Varriano
Stepping into the Lonesome Whistle Farm’s booth at the Saturday Market is a very different kind of feast for the eyes. There are no piles of vibrant leafy greens or a rainbow of radishes, carrots, turnips and beets.
But there is Kasey White, usually stirring gleaming black kernels of heirloom popcorn into a small popcorn maker, the scent and sound filling the air.
The scene reminds me of an old school carnival where White and her partner, Jeff Broadie, are the ringmasters, inviting us to “step right up” and look closer at their wares.
There are piles of beans and grains, bags of the aforementioned Dakota Black Heirloom Popcorn and unique alternative flours galore, but one of my absolute favorites has to be the corn polenta.
Theirs is ground from Abenaki corn, a heritage breed of flint corn that grows in brilliant red, orange and yellow kernels.
There are many classes of corn grown for all different things, White explains. There is sweet corn for eating, popcorn for popping, flour corn for drying and more.
Flint corn, like the variety grown at Lonesome Whistle, is primarily dried and then ground for polenta, or kept whole for boiling to make hominy or tortillas.
If anything, the Abenaki polenta grown by White and Broadie is under processed in the sense that you can still see the flecks of orange and red from the hulls. It’s full flavored with no fillers or additives — just pure corn.
Now, my father has become a big fan of all things Food Network. And say what you will about the star-filled glitzy cooking shows, but the shows have made him much more adventurous in his North Dakota kitchen. Lonesome Whistle’s polenta was the perfect gift for a curious cook.
When he unwrapped his polenta present, Dad looked at me with equal parts excitement and curiosity, asking, “What do I do with this?”
I get it. It’s not pasta or potatoes or even rice. What does it pair with, how does it cook, and what’s the difference between polenta and grits, anyway?
Don’t worry, there are easy answers for this culinary conundrum.
Polenta has its roots in Italy but wasn’t always made with corn. Northern Italians would grind barley and other grains for porridge-like dishes until maize from North America made its way back to Europe. Barley was out and corn was king, evolving into the polenta we see today.
The differences between Italian polenta and Southern-style grits are few. Grits are usually ground from a class of corn called dent corn instead of the flint used for polenta. Additionally, grits are generally processed to a much finer consistency, creating a smooth mush when cooked, rather than the toothsome consistency of polenta.
As for eating and preparation, polenta is pretty flexible; it plays well with things on the savory and sweet spectrum.
The key when boiling is to not let it cook too fast and dry out. Get water boiling and whisk in the polenta (a 4 to 1 ratio of water to polenta), stirring until it becomes thick. Then cover and walk away, returning every 10 minutes to give a stir for one minute and check for liquid levels. Rich, creamy polenta can be achieved in roughly 30 to 40 minutes.
When boiled until soft and then eaten immediately, I’ve heard it likened to “Italian mashed potatoes.”
Consider pairing it with roasted meats ladled with a savory jus or simply topping with a little butter or mascarpone cheese and fresh cracked pepper.
I also consider hot, soft polenta to be a rougher porridge — an exotic oatmeal — and like to top it with either a poached egg and crumbled bits of bacon or a drizzle of honey and fresh fruit.
Another terrific option is to take that steaming hot pot of polenta and pour it into a baking dish before cooling in the refrigerator for a few hours. The cooled polenta acts like a slab of dough and can be cut into your desired shape and baked, broiled or sauteed to create a crisp crust.
The resulting polenta gains a crunchy exterior that hides the creamy middle and can act almost like a French fry begging to be dipped in a garlic-heavy tomato sauce or topped with creamy goat cheese.
To create even more flavor, White recommends using either milk or stock when first boiling polenta.
The uncooked cornmeal can also be used in baking recipes, creating cookies and slightly sweet cakes, reminiscent of cornbread.
Step right up into Lonesome Whistle’s booth, walk out with a bag of their Abenaki polenta and open the door to new culinary adventures.
Spicy Polenta-Cheese Crackers
From 101cookbooks.com. Makes 75 crackers.
1 cup bread or whole wheat flour
1 cup instant polenta
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 1/2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk, shaken to blend
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a food processor or blender, combine the flour, polenta, sea salt, baking soda, cayenne pepper and cheese. Process to blend. Add the butter and process just until the mixture resemble coarse meal. Add the buttermilk and process until the dough just forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for a few seconds. Wrap in plastic and set aside at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Cut the dough into quarters. Set one quarter on a lightly floured surface; cover the remaining pieces with plastic. Roll out the dough 1/16 inch thick. Using a 1 3/4-inch biscuit cutter or a glass, cut out rounds of dough and arrange them on a nonstick baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake until the crackers are golden and crisp — up to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of the cracker. They can be cooked as soon as eight minutes – set a timer for six minutes and keep an eye on them.
Once cool, transfer to airtight containers. The crackers can be stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
From Spoonforkbacon.com. Serves 6 to 8.
4 cups low-fat milk
1 1/2 cups coarse ground yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 ounces goat cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoon vegetable oil
Use as a dipping sauce for the fries, along with 1/2 cup marinara sauce of your choice.
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons minced tarragon
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Pour milk into a medium saucepan, place over medium heat and simmer. Slowly whisk in cornmeal until fully incorporated, lower heat to low and continue to stir for about 5 minutes.
Fold in butter and goat cheese and season with salt and pepper. Stir until no lumps remain, then pour mixture into a lightly greased 9-inch-by-13-inch baking sheet with a 1-inch lip.
Evenly spread and allow mixture to cool for about 20 minutes before placing into the refrigerator. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
When ready to make, remove polenta from refrigerator and invert onto a clean cutting board. Cut polenta into 1/2-inch by 3-inch sticks.
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add oil. Lightly fry polenta stick for 2-3 minutes on each side, in batches, making sure not to overcrowd the pan.
Place finished sticks onto some paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Serve fries with basic Tarragon Aïoli and marinara sauce of your choice.
For Tarragon Aïoli: Place all ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk together. Season with salt and pepper and set aside until ready to use.
Email Jackie Varriano at email@example.com.