Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ugali, Grits and Polenta - It's a Small World!

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how universal many ingredients are, how the simple bean has been incorporated into cuisines around the world; the eggplant, a native to India, is as integral to Thai menus as it is to Middle Eastern tables. The Three Sisters of the New World, and now, International cookery – Squash, Beans and Corn – can be found as easily in Boston as they are in Botswana. It is corn that I wish to spotlight today, or more specifically, polenta.

Simply put, polenta is finely ground corn meal and when cooked, it becomes corn mush. Before corn was introduced to Europe in the 1700’s, polenta, the name for any grain cooked to porridge-like consistency, was made with farro, chickpeas or millet. Corn polenta became a staple in peasant Italian kitchens and until fairly recently, was considered just that, peasant fare. But corn mush has a far larger international influence and commonality.

A female cheetah enjoys her kill
While on a family safari in Tanzania, my husband, sons and I witnessed the circle of life, literally, as we watched a cheetah lick the blood from a fresh gazelle kill off her paws. 
We gazed over the vastness of the Serengeti as wildebeests and zebras in the thousands, following instincts millennium old, indulged themselves on the grasses that would sustain them for their lengthy northward migration. At night we heard hyenas cackle and lions roar and the next day, followed the vultures circling over the carcasses of the night’s prey.

Once our drives were done for the day, our group savored amazing fare - a huge variety of curries, roasted meats seasoned with piri-piri at the lodges where we stayed, and while camping on the Serengeti, a Christmas Eve dinner of clove-studded ham, prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, all prepared in braziers over charcoal pits. A better kitchen I have yet to experience.

Camp kitchen on the Serengeti
On our last days of safari, we stayed at Terengire Treetops Lodge, just outside Terengire National Park, a small park by African standards but one with a huge concentration of elephants. It was here, 10 days into our time together, that I got into a conversation about food with two fellow travelers – Frank, one of our guides and a native Tanzanian, and Sue, from North Carolina. I remarked that a thick porridge had been readily available throughout our trip. “Ugali”, Frank replied, “It’s served with every meal. It's corn meal.” “Just like grits”, Sue said, with an inflection in her voice that just rang with Southern pride. It turned out that grits and ugali are one and the same, and that’s when I mentioned creamy polenta, my closest association with corn mush. In the late 80’s when I was in culinary school, polenta was raised from a humble home staple to heights of sophistication by chefs in San Francisco and across the country. It was topped with slow braised short ribs, among other humble cuts of meat, and made corn mush an important component of what is now known as comfort food. 

Margie with the chef at Terengire Treetops Lodge
After finding eviscerated remains of a prey animal drying in the equatorial sun or spotting satiated carnivores splayed out, bellies full, along a track, talking about the food trends of North America seemed mundane, but it also brought to mind one thing we all share – we have to eat. We’d seen it dozens of times on the Serengeti; we’d experienced it ourselves when we came in from our drives – when is dinner and where is the Tusker Lager? And now, Sue, Frank and I were sharing our love of corn mush. Polenta, a simple stable, became a common denominator that brought three tired, hungry safari wayfarers together and showed us just how small the world really is.

Cheesy Fried Polenta Triangles

Top with marinara sauce for a side dish or with a meat sauce as an entrée.


4 cups water
1 cup polenta
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Pepper, to taste
2-3 cups grated melting cheese, such as Parmesan, Gruyere, Fontina or cheddar, or a combination
Olive oil, for frying
Grated Parmesan, for garnish


Coat the bottom and sides of a 9x13 baking pan with non-stick spray oil.

In a medium saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil. Slowly add the polenta, stirring to combine. Lower heat and continue stirring until the polenta is creamy and pulls from the side of the pan, about 15-20 minutes. Add the butter and pepper and grated cheese and stir until the butter and cheese are melted. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

 Pour the polenta into the prepared baking pan and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.

When the polenta is set, remove from refrigerator and cut into squares and then into triangles. In a wide sauté pan, heat about ½ cup of olive oil over high heat. Add 3-5 polenta triangles and fry until the polenta is golden and crisp. Adjust heat as necessary to avoid burning. Remove cooked triangles to a baking sheet covered with paper towels. Add more oil as needed and repeat with the remaining triangles. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan.

Serve warm as is or topped with sauce.

No comments:

Post a Comment