At one time, communities throughout the US had their own gristmills, where farmers could take their grain to be ground, leaving a small amount for the miller as his pay. We still see remnants of those buildings throughout the northeast. A couple of weeks ago, a writer named Scott Peacock, who collaborated with late Edna Lewis on a cookbook about southern food, was interviewed on NPR about his “Alabama Project,” a series of interviews with older folks about their food memories. One of the interesting stories compared biscuits and cornbread. Rural families routinely grew their own corn and took it to the community mill for grinding and therefore cornbread became a mealtime staple. However, wheat flour had to be purchased and therefore, with the family’s limited resources, biscuits were treated as precious. At breakfast time, people would fill up on the previous evening’s cornbread since there wouldn’t be enough biscuits to satisfy their hunger.
We don’t grow wheat in any quantity around here either, and the local flour mills that still operate in places like Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, source organically grown wheat from the Midwest. Corn, for us too, is another matter. There still are functioning mills, including one in Pittstown, New Jersey, that I believe organically raises corn and grinds its own cornmeal. Freshly ground meal or flour has a shorter shelf life than commercial flour (no surprise) and I was pushing my luck with a bag of coarse cornmeal that I purchased at our local health food store. It was stored in an airtight container but I probably should have refrigerated or frozen it.
Although the Dark Days Challenge, a blog event that challenges participants to use only sustainable, organic, local and ethical ingredients, has folded for the year, I am continuing through to the original April 15 close. I find it a useful forum to focus on the topic of local, organic food, especially in the winter when little is growing. This week, I took advantage of local cornmeal, local Toma cheese, my homemade butter, organic tomatoes that I harvested at our CSA last summer, roasted with garlic and thyme, and froze, and our ever present local mushrooms, which I pan roasted with winter savory and thyme. I made the polenta in the microwave since I had little time on a weeknight to cook it on the stove (which I find tedious) or in the oven (my usual method). Polenta is served either as a relatively soft mush, as I did here, or is spread in a cake tin to cool, after which it is sliced and grilled.
Roasted tomatoes are great to have on hand since they become an instant sauce or add depth of flavor to soups and stews. I typically use up the last of the plum tomatoes this way, since by the end of the season, I’ve had it with canning. However, if you’re craving tomatoes in the winter, even the store bought plum tomatoes will be improve by roasting them. I roast halved tomatoes in olive oil, cut side down, at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, remove the skins and turn down the heat to 250 degrees and roast until slightly leathery but not dried out, about 2 hours.
½ c coarse stone ground cornmeal
1 ¾ c water
½ tsp salt
1 tsp butter or olive oil
¼ c grated cheese (Cherry Grove Toma or Parmesan)
Oven method: mix cornmeal, water and salt in an ovenproof baking dish, cover and place in a preheated 325 degree oven. Uncover after 20 minutes and still in the butter or oil. Re-cover and bake for another 30-40 minutes, stirring a few times, until cooked. It should still be a little soupy. Mix in cheese if using, and serve immediately for soft polenta or spread in a cake pan until firm. Refrigerate and slice to grill.
Microwave version: Mix ingredients and microwave, covered with a plate for 8 minutes. Remove carefully (dish will be very hot), stir in butter or oil and return to oven, covered. Microwave for another 5 minutes, remove and stir again. It should be starting to clump. Repeat once or twice more, or until the cornmeal is cooked (taste it) and there is still some liquid in the pot. It will continue to cook. Mix in cheese if using, and serve immediately for soft polenta or spread in a cake pan until firm. Refrigerate and slice to grill.
1 lb mushrooms, preferably a mixture of types
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
3/4 tsp dried thyme or winter savory or 1+ tsp fresh thyme or savory
Fresh herbs such as lovage, parsley, or tarragon
Clean and slice the mushrooms. Working in batches that cover the bottom of a pan in one layer, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil over medium high heat until browned on one side. Toss. Add a portion of the shallot, garlic and seasonings and continue to cook for a few minutes until the shallots are cooked. Add a touch of butter if desired and remove to a bowl. Repeat with the rest of the mushrooms.