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Mush as High Cuisine

American chefs have spent a decade trying to elevate nearly every American dish to grande cuisine, but they’ve passed on hominy grits. Meanwhile, polenta--essentially the same thing, but Italian--is all over restaurant menus. People must still think of grits and mush as white-trash breakfast food, because one finds grits only on the breakfast menus of greasy spoon cafes, and then only in parts of the country where people have always included it in their everyday eating.

This is too bad, because the gruel is really delicious and it lends itself to many variations. In the southern United States and northern Italy, mush/polenta is a staple on every table. It’s eaten hot or cold, fried, baked or sauteed, sweet for breakfast and savory for lunch and dinner. It’s bread, rice and pasta rolled into one.

Before corn was introduced into Europe from America in the 16th Century, polenta was made with wheat, barley, millet or even chestnut flour. I’ve experimented with other flours but have gotten the most delicious results using chick pea flour.

Recipes for cooking polenta tell the cook to stir constantly over low heat for an hour or more. The polenta bubbles and spits, and Italian housewives traditionally wear long sleeves as protection while cooking it.

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I doubt, though, that any modern housewife keeps a polenta dress for preparing the dish. Nor do I imagine a with-it foodie coming home from the office, putting on an old pair of opera gloves and standing over a pot of double-bubble polenta.

Southern lore has it that grits should cook rapidly for five minutes, then simmer over the lowest heat for as much as two hours. Who has time for that? I find that 20 minutes is adequate. Still, the longer you cook these porridges, the creamier they become.

Serve these cornmeal gruels soft, with butter stirred in. They’re a nice change from mashed potatoes. Mix in some sauteed onions or corn for textural contrast or some grated cheese for flavor. I mix them with mushrooms for a terrific stuffing for chicken, capon or turkey. Be certain, though, to stuff the bird immediately before roasting, since the stuffing is still warm.

The mushes are most versatile when cooled and cut into cakes for grilling, sauteing or cooking in a sauce. They remain creamy and light-textured in the center but have a crunchy, popcorn-flavored crust.

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SEAFOOD, CHICKEN AND CORN CAKES

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups water

Salt

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1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

2 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts

4 large shrimp

3 tablespoons olive oil

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4 large scallops

4 clams

4 mussels

1 teaspoon minced garlic

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2 tablespoons finely minced shallots or onion

1/4 cup white wine

1/2 cup freshly made or canned low-sodium chicken broth

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads or powder

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1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 cup whipping cream

Generously butter 9-inch square pan with 1 tablespoon unsalted butter. Combine water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in 2-quart saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat. Slowly add cornmeal, stirring constantly. Cook until mixture bubbles, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low, cook and stir until mixture is thick and begins to pull away from sides of pan, about 25 minutes.

Pour into prepared pan, spreading evenly. Cool completely. Cut polenta into 1-inch squares or circles. Remove from pan and set aside.

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Remove tenderloins from chicken breasts and set aside on plate. Cut each breast into 2 or 3 lengthwise pieces and set aside. Peel shrimp, leaving tails intact. Devein shrimp.

At dinnertime, toss corn cakes with 2 tablespoons oil and arrange on baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes, turning once.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add chicken pieces and tenderloins, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, garlic and shallots. Add wine and cook 1 minute. Add broth, saffron and white pepper.

Remove chicken pieces and shellfish from skillet as each is cooked to doneness. Set aside on plate. Remove scallops first, then shrimp. Remove clams and mussels as they open. Discard unopened ones. Remove chicken. Add cream to skillet and cook until liquid reduces and becomes sauce-like. Return all reserved ingredients to sauce. Swirl in remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Season to taste with salt.

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To serve, mound corn cakes in center of platter. Arrange piles of chicken, shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels around corn cakes and spoon sauce over seafood and chicken. Makes 4 servings.

CHICK PEA POLENTA WITH OKRA, TOMATOES AND MUSHROOMS

8 plum tomatoes or canned whole tomatoes

16 okra

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1 1/2 cups chick pea (garbanzo) flour

2 cups cold water

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt

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16 mushroom caps

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

4 eggs

Grated Parmesan cheese or Romano cheese

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If using fresh tomatoes, plunge into boiling water and cook 1 minute, or until skins begin to crack slightly. Drain immediately. Peel tomatoes. Cut each in half. Squeeze out and discard seeds. Chop tomatoes and set aside. If using canned tomatoes, chop and set aside.

Beginning below cap, slit okra lengthwise into quarters and set aside.

Combine chick pea flour and water in heavy saucepan. Place over medium heat and cook until mixture boils, bubbles and thickens, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon salt. Spread in lightly greased 9x6-inch baking sheet with sides. Cool. Cut into 1-inch squares. Remove from sheet.

Place remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in oven-proof skillet on stove and add okra and mushroom caps. Cook about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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When ready to serve, arrange polenta squares in baking dish. Make 4 indentations in tomato mixture and carefully break 1 egg into each. Place in oven side by side with tomato-okra mixture in skillet. Bake together at 375 degrees about 10 minutes, or until eggs are set.

Arrange polenta on plates and spoon vegetables and eggs over top. Pass grated Parmesan cheese on side. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.


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