I recently came across a comfort food that I had forgotten about. When thinking about writing this column I did pause to ask myself if it could really count as comfort food if I had forgotten about it and therefore hadn't eaten it in years - in fact, probably 10 years or so. But as I ran through the original reasons why I felt it qualified, it stood the test. Simple, warming and full of wonderful memories, cornmeal mush is certainly taking its rightful place now.
I rediscovered cornmeal mush in about the strangest way possible. Over the holidays I was looking for a nice, comforting family meal for a Saturday night as a way to unwind from our hectic schedule. I had chicken and mushrooms and using them, concocted a wonderful baked dish with wine, herbs and lots of delicious sauce. As it filled the house with its heavenly scent, I thought about what to serve it with. Somehow potatoes, rice or noodles didn't seem quite right. This would be a rich dish, needing something to soak up that sauce. Aha! How about polenta?
Polenta was something that I had often eaten in restaurants but until that evening it hadn't become part of my cooking repertoire. I looked up a couple recipes, and, as I had thought, found that it was simple enough - coarsely ground cornmeal, water and salt cooked until thick. Pretty hard to botch.
My instincts were right on - the polenta was a perfect match for the chicken and mushrooms. Creamy, and hearty, they soaked up the juices, transforming each bite into something so delicious in both flavor and texture that I savored bite after bite. At the end of the meal, I was surprised to see how much polenta was leftover, and it was beginning to set up into a thick mass in the pan. And then, out of nowhere, I remembered what my grandmother used to do.
Grandma Hickin grew up in the Midwest during the Depression where serving cornmeal mush (also known in some places as coosh) to your family made lots of financial sense and fried mush with maple syrup was a favorite. She would tend thick slices of the mush carefully as they fried up in her cast iron skillet. These slabs were my favorite part of a big breakfast at the farm - crisp and buttery on the outside and creamy and corny on the inside. While not st something I got to enjoy at the farm a lot, mush reminds me of being in her kitchen scented with percolated coffee and maple, bleary-eyed and hungry as I helped set out the plates as we readied for a day of strawberry picking or weeding.
So here I found myself with extra polenta - wasn't it practically the same thing? Not really knowing what I was doing I greased a bread pan and poured the leftover corn mixture in, covering it with plastic wrap and putting it in the fridge over night. It was worth the gamble.
To be clear, polenta and mush are not technically the same thing. Yes, they are both made of coarsely ground corn cooked with water and they are both served either soft as a porridge or set and cut into block or shapes. But they are each traditionally made of different types of corn from different regions (think Italy vs America) not to mention that cornmeal mush is sometimes made using milk instead of water. If you want to really ponder differences, throw grits and masa into this conversation. But at the end of the day, the two are really pretty interchangeable as long as you aren't too much of a stickler for the facts.
My polenta/mush experiment worked perfectly and 8-year-old Margot was much happier eating it fried for breakfast with syrup than she was eating it under her chicken the night before. Imagine my joyful surprise when I was going through my recipe box and found buried in the ‘Quick Breads' section a 3x5 card written by my grandmother labeled Cornmeal Mush, attributing the recipe to her mother, my great-grandmother, Grace Houser. I had completely forgotten about it and was so pleased to be reconnected with this simple, staple and delicious comfort food. If serving with savory foods, simply omit the sugar.
(Great) Grandma Houser's Cornmeal Mush (in Grandma Hickin's words)
2 3/4 cups water - boiling in a large saucepan that has a lid
1 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold water
Combine cornmeal, sugar, salt and cold water and add gradually to boiling water, stirring constantly. Cook til thickened. COVER. Continue cooking over low heat 10-15 minutes. Pour into loaf pan and cool. Slice 1 1 2 inches thick and fry slowly in hot fat.
Undoubtedly this is a comforting dish whether served fried as my Grandmothers prepared it or eaten as a porridge soaking up dinner's juices. And it remains a comforting tie to these two tremendous women who taught generations of us about food and family. And if that isn't comfort food, I don't know what is!