Food and Drink: Golden grains make finer fare than flour: From smart slices of polenta to nursery puddings, cornmeal is the key ingredient

THE THING I like best about cornmeal is its colour. The sunshine-yellow grains are so bright and enticing that I would be tempted to cook with them even if they tasted of absolutely nothing. Luckily they do not. I am not going to pretend they have an enormously powerful presence, but the gentle pleasing flavour has its own subtle charms that are every bit as good in savoury dishes as in sweet.

A few years ago, the only kind of cornmeal you could get was Italian slow-cooking polenta and then only from an Italian delicatessen. Not so now. Word has spread and even supermarkets (the larger ones, at any rate) stock polenta, though more often than not it is 'quick-cooking' or even 'instant'. Then there is American or West Indian-style cornmeal, again stocked by enterprising supermarkets and deli's as well as many ethnic stores. A few clever healthfood shops also sell the strange-looking blue cornmeal, actually a slatey purple-grey.

All are ground down from dried maize. Polenta is the coarsest. What is sold as course cornmeal is smaller-grained. Fine cornmeal is soft and silky smooth. The blue cornmeal that I have come across has usually been fine-ground and can be used just like yellow cornmeal. You can swap all of them around freely in most recipes, though naturally the texture of the finished article will be affected.

Polenta has made a name for itself in modish restaurants as the backdrop for all kinds of robustly flavoured food. It is usually cooked as a kind of porridge or puree with water and salt. I sometimes use stock rather than water for more flavour. If it is the straight, old-fashioned grain, then this requires patience and sturdy arms as you must stir the ever-thickening yellow gloop for a minimum of 20 minutes and up to 40. The exact ratio of meal to liquid can be varied to change the consistency; the proportions given in the recipe below are for a fairly thick solid polenta. If you substitute finer American-style cornmeal, you will have to increase the amount of liquid.

Usually the grain is poured into the boiling water in a slow-steady stream, but I take an unorthodox approach by mixing them cold then heating, which seems to deliver fewer lumps. Straight cooked polenta can be pretty boring, but beat in a generous knob or two of butter and some freshly grated parmesan and it is instantly transformed into a puree that is every bit as good, if not better, than mashed potatoes. If you prefer to do the hard work in advance, pour the hot cooked polenta straight from the pan into a well-greased loaf tin and leave to cool and set. Slice it thickly and either fry or grill, brushed with olive oil, until crusty and brown. It is even nicer than the puree.

The quick and instant polentas, though no doubt frowned upon by purists, are excellent standbys. You may lose out a bit on taste, but barely enough to notice. Follow packet instructions for proportions first time round, then vary them according to taste. There is also a vacuum- packed totally cooked boil-in-the-bag polenta that is well worth searching out. You can even slice it cold straight from the pack for grilling or frying.

There are endless recipes using cornmeal from the Deep South of the US and further down into Central America, not to mention the delicious dumplings and mushes from the Caribbean. One quick use of cornmeal that you may not have come across is as an alternative to breadcrumbs for coating foods that are to be fried. Flour, then egg the pieces of fish, vegetables or whatever, then turn in seasoned fine cornmeal. The result, when fried to a nutty brown, will be a perfect crisp casing with a hint of sweetness.

VERY RICH, deeply unhealthy and quite delicious, this is one of the best ways of serving Italian-style polenta. I make it as a main course, accompanied by a green salad. Double-check the packet for cooking instructions - if it is an 'instant' polenta then you will not need so much water and the initial cooking time will be vastly reduced.

Polenta with Gorgonzola & Sage

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 12oz (340g) polenta

1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, coarsely

crushed

6 sage leaves torn in half

3oz (85g) butter

8oz (225g) gorgonzola diced

salt

Preparation: Grease an ovenproof dish - I used a 10-inch souffle dish. Melt 2oz (55g) of butter in a small pan and add the sage leaves. Infuse over a low heat for 5 minutes and set aside. Put the polenta, salt and 2 pints (1140ml) water in a pan and stir to mix evenly. Bring to the boil, stirring, and cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring frequently and, towards the end of the cooking time, continuously to prevent it catching. If it looks lumpy, beat hard with a wooden spoon. It is ready when the polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Take off the heat and beat in remaining butter and the peppercorns.

Now move quickly before it begins to set. Spoon half of it into the prepared dish and smooth down. Dot with half the gorgonzola and spoon over about one-third of the butter and sage. Dollop on remaining polenta and smooth down as best you can. Cover with remaining cheese and pour over the remaining butter and sage.

As long as everything is hot and you are ready to eat, whizz the dish quickly under the grill to melt the cheese until lightly browned and sizzling. Otherwise, bake in the oven heated to 190C/375F/gas 5 for 20 minutes. Eat straight away, taking care not to burn your mouth as I did.

THIS IS a classic American cornbread that should really be made with fine- ground cornmeal, but if you substitute coarser polenta you will still get an excellent bread with a grainier consistency. Make it plain, or jazz it up by adding one or more of the optional extras.

Cornbread

Serves 8

Ingredients: 2 1/2 oz (70g) plain flour

1tsp salt

3tsp baking powder

7 1/2 oz (215g) fine cornmeal

1tsp caster sugar

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 pint (290 ml) milk

2 1/2 oz (70g) butter, melted, plus a little

extra for greasing pan

Optional extras: 1-2 green chillis,

deseeded and finely chopped

2tbs chopped coriander or parsley

4oz (110g) bacon, grilled and crumbled

2oz (55g) sun-dried tomatoes, or pitted

olives, chopped

Preparation: Pre-heat the oven to 200C/ 400F/gas 6. Butter a 9in by 9in (22 cm) baking tin (or thereabouts) generously and place in the oven to heat up.

Sift the flour with the salt and baking powder. Mix in the cornmeal and sugar. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs and half the milk. Beat, gradually adding the remaining milk and then the melted butter, to form a smooth batter. Stir in any of the optional extras. Pour into the hot baking tin and bake for 15-20 minutes until firm. Cut into squares while still hot and eat hot, warm or cold.

AMERICAN Indian pudding is usually flavoured with molasses, but I prefer this version, sweetened with light muscovado sugar. The result is a superior nursery pudding fragrant with spices.

Golden Indian Pudding

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 3oz (85g) cornmeal

1 1/2 pints (860ml) hot milk

6fl oz (180ml) cold milk

2oz (55g) butter

3oz (85g) light muscovado sugar

3oz (85g) caster sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp salt

2 eggs, beaten

Preparation: Mix cornmeal with hot milk in a bowl and set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until it thickens and is smooth. Cover and cook for a further 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take the bowl off the pan and beat in butter, then spices, sugar and salt until evenly mixed. Beat in the eggs. Pour into a buttered baking dish to give a layer about 2in (5cm) deep. Pour over the cold milk. Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for an hour or until just set. Serve hot with cream.

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