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AMONG the cereals sitting on my kitchen shelf, perhaps the most versatile are the golden-yellow granules of the maize plant, known as cornmeal or polenta. Maize, zea mays, is one of the world's oldest foods. It was the only cereal grown by the Azt ec, Inca and Maya civilisations and remains a staple food of much of central and South America. In central and southern Africa it is known as mealies.

Although cornmeal is now firmly identified with Italian cooking, the cereal did not arrive in Europe until it was introduced by Columbus - before then the Italians used ground spelt (a species of wheat), chestnuts, buckwheat and millet to make their celebrated dish of polenta.

Cornmeal is milled in several grades: fine, medium, and two or three sizes of coarse grade, each of them suited to a particular method of cooking. In fact, the finest ground of all maize flours is the eminently useful, silky smooth gluten-free cornflour or starch.

Italian yellow polenta is traditionally made by beating a thin stream of coarse-grained cornmeal into a pan of simmering salted water: add 10oz/300g of cornmeal to 3 pints/1.5 litres of water. Cook the polenta, stirring all the time, over a low heat for 20-30 minutes, or until the mixture comes free from the side of the pan. If you are short of time there is also an "instant" polenta available which is already partly cooked; you simply beat the prepared cornmeal into boiling water and, hey presto, you have edible polenta in 30 seconds flat.

Freshly made polenta can be served straight from the pan to accompany meat, fish and other dishes, or the mixture is poured on to an oiled baking sheet to cool. Then cut into pieces, the polenta is brushed with olive oil and fried or grilled until it is deliciously browned. Alternatively, cut out circles of polenta and bake them in overlapping layers of butter and grated Parmesan cheese.

The nutty flavour and sunflower yellow of cornmeal make it an excellent alternative to breadcrumbs for coating food before frying - try it on filletted fish and chicken, first dipped in milk or beaten egg then rolled in seasoned fine or medium ground cornmeal.

I sometimes replace half the plain or wholemeal flour in a plain cake and biscuit recipe with cornmeal to give an interesting variation. It works especially well in griddle cakes - simply replace half the flour in a recipe for Scotch pancakes with cornmeal and add some fresh fruit.

Fine and medium ground cornmeal plays a major role in North American baking: spoonbread, corn pone and hoe cakes all depend on its grainy texture. Some experienced American bakers prefer white cornmeal for baking, claiming the flavour and texture are superior. And because the maize plant can produce grain of several colours, even blue cornmeal has found a market. However, golden yellow cornmeal is the easiest to track to here - good Italian delis sell it. I use it to make corn muffins. These Amer ican classics have become popular in Britain, though I've yet to find a commercially made muffin to compare in flavour with the home-baked kind.

CORNMEAL MUFFINS ce Basic recipe, makes 12 large muffins or 24 smaller ones 12 pint/300ml milk, buttermilk or plain yoghurt 2 large eggs 3 tablespoons mild-tasting vegetable oil - sun-flower, safflower or grapeseed 8oz/225g fine-ground yellow cornmeal 4oz/100g plain white flour, preferably unbleached 1 tablespoon baking powder 12 to 1 teaspoon salt Use a balloon whisk to mix together the milk, buttermilk or yoghurt with the eggs and oil. Gradually whisk in the cornmeal and then the flour sifted with the baking powder and salt to make a thick batter. Spoon the mixture into 12 oiled American muffin tins or 24 patty tins.

Bake in an oven preheated to 425F/220C/gas 7 for 10 to 12 minutes for the small muffins and 15-20 minutes for the larger ones. Cool in the tins for two minutes then transfer to a cloth-lined basket and serve straight away, or place on a wire rack to cooland reheat later. Serve plain or with cream, butter or maple syrup.

The basic recipe can be adapted.

Bacon and Herb Muffins: Use half the basic mixture and add 2 rashers of back or streaky bacon, diced and fried until crisp; 1 teaspoon finely chopped herbs - thyme, chives, parsley - or 12 teaspoon herbes de Provence. After spooning the mixture into thetins, sprinkle the diced bacon and herbs on top, pressing it into the mixture with the back of a teaspoon.

Fresh Fruit Muffins: You will need half the basic mixture, 1oz/25g caster sugar, 1-2 drops vanilla essence and 2oz/50g blueberries, cranberries or blackcurrants. Mix the sugar and vanilla into the mixture and spoon it into the tins. Divide the fruit between the tins, gently pressing it into mixture.

Bake both variations as for basic recipe.