As a kid I’d make cornmeal muffins each Sunday with my grandmother, standing on a kitchen chair with its back to the counter, mixing together a bowl of that golden stuff. We’d spoon the batter into hot cast-iron muffin tins so that it hit with a fragrant sizzle. The muffins emerged crusty and tender with a whiff of musty sweet corn.
Years later, on a rainy evening in a gritty cafe off Rome’s Piazza Farnese, I had my first bowl of polenta. Slightly gritty, creamy and comforting, each bite sent me reeling back to Gram’s breakfasts of cornmeal mush. Though thousands of miles from her kitchen, that same humble grain was translated into an elegant one-bowl refrain.
Cornmeal is remarkably versatile, adding nubby texture and a buttery color to all it encounters — breads, cookies, cakes and tart crusts. It gives the batter for fried foods a tender, tasty crunch. It can be simmered into polenta, that lush alternative to pasta, and it makes a hearty breakfast stand-in for oatmeal, as well. A nutrition powerhouse, cornmeal is a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and vitamin B.
Ground from dried field corn, cornmeal is different from the varieties of sweet corn we enjoy straight off the cob through the summer. But just like sweet corn, the best- tasting cornmeal comes from fields nearby.
Thanks to several local growers and processors, we now have access to remarkable, great-tasting cornmeal, far better than any of the commercial products found on supermarket shelves. Whole Grain Milling Co. in Welcome, Minn., and Riverbend Farms in Delano are grinding their own local field corn into wonderful cornmeal that makes flavorful baked goods, hot breakfast cereal and polenta.
Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farms delivers it fresh to several locations each week. Yes, the difference between fresh and packaged commercial varieties is big, and well worth the difference in price. Fresh cornmeal is a deep, buttery yellow; it smells like corn, it tastes like corn and it’s slightly moist. It’s best kept in the refrigerator and used up quickly — within two weeks — or frozen.
To add cornmeal to favorite baked goods, for each cup of all-purpose flour, substitute ¼ cup of the flour with ¼ cup cornmeal. To use it in batters or coating for fried foods, simply substitute half of the flour in the mix with cornmeal. Try cornmeal in your favorite recipes, or check out those on this page.
Riverbend Farm’s cornmeal is currently available at Linden Hills Co-op, the Wedge Co-op, Minneapolis, and Mississippi Market on W. 7th Street, St. Paul, with more stores carrying it soon.
Whole Grain Milling Cornmeal is available in the bulk flour sections of all Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops. Otherwise, look for organic cornmeal from Bobs or Arrowhead Mills, available in the baking department of most grocery stores.
Keep fresh cornmeal in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or freeze for later use.
Beth Dooley is the author of “The Northern Heartland Kitchen.”