Kitchen Witch - Full-circle mush

Polenta with a Spicy Tomato Sauce

This is a story about mush.

As a kid up North, where breakfast was two eggs any style, toast and hash browns, I knew little about mush (unless you count instant oatmeal). The word "grits" was not even part of the local vernacular (with the exception of Flo talking sass on "Alice"), and it didn't enter my vision until I was well into my 20s, when I worked at a diner owned by a couple of grits-eating Floridians.

The mush held such little appeal that it would be years before my next encounter, and this time it was yellow and went by the name "polenta." Served with tomato sauce and cheese, my plate of mush was so good I lapped it up and went straight to the store and bought a tube of polenta that all the magazines were raving about. Unfortunately, this was not mush; this was cardboard posing as mush. So I stayed away from the mush and pretty much had been leading a mush-free life until one day someone asked me for mushy advice and I couldn't deliver.

It was time to go back to the mush, stick my head into the pot, study her and decide once and for all if I could bring her back into my life. The short answer is yes. I've finally come full circle.

Polenta with a Spicy Tomato Sauce

From A Passion for Piedmont by Matt Kramer

1/4-1/2 cup olive oil

1 small head garlic (about 12 cloves), separated, peeled and thinly sliced

6 whole salted anchovy fillets, rinsed, soaked briefly in water and finely chopped

Approximately 16 ounces tomatoes — 5 chopped fresh, seeded tomatoes, or one can tomato puree

Handful fresh Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced, or 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Cooked polenta (recipe below)

Pour olive oil in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over very low heat. Add garlic and anchovies. Add more olive oil if necessary to barely cover ingredients. Cook for at least 30 minutes, making sure garlic does not color or burn.

Add tomatoes, parsley and pepper. Cook over medium-low heat for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, make polenta (recipe to follow).

Classic Polenta

From A Passion for Piedmont by Matt Kramer

8 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups stone-ground medium cornmeal (also sold as corn grits or polenta)

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, bring water and salt to a boil. Gradually drop cornmeal into pot one handful at a time (think rain shower), stirring or whisking constantly. When all of the cornmeal is incorporated – about five minutes – continue stirring but lower heat as cornmeal mass thickens. It will soon become fairly dense and take on volcanic qualities, occasionally erupting. Lower heat if necessary to minimize eruptions, and stir regularly (every 2-3 minutes) so all of the cornmeal gets equal heat exposure and doesn't stick to bottom of pan.

As polenta cooks, it will lighten in color and become slightly fluffy in texture. When it is approaching a fully cooked stage, it will start to pull away from sides of the pot. At the 30-minute mark, polenta is ready to be served, but you may keep cooking and stirring for another 10-15 minutes for a thicker result. You can't really overcook polenta, as long as you keep stirring to prevent scorching.

Makes 4 entree-sized servings.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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