Sunday, January 26, 2014

Wisconsin cheddar spoon bread

This dish, from Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland by Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson (Knopf, 1994), is of course a basic polenta -- corn meal cooked in boiling water, with cheese added, or perhaps a sauce on the side. If you have never tried polenta and think that creating a dinner of cornmeal and water sounds about as exciting as a dinner founded on wet cardboard, do please think again. It is delicious.

I first came upon a polenta recipe in the book Country Tastes (HP Press, 1988) by the heartland-born Beatrice Ojakangas, who incidentally is mentioned as a source in this very Scandinavian-immigrant flavored Savoring the Seasons. So, is polenta Scandinavian? The name is Italian, the corn American; but French recipes are also delicious and, may I say, by far the least onerous to prepare. Italians stir the stuff endlessly, for fear of lumps forming. The French simply put it into a casserole and bake it and then go off and relax in their frivolous French way, it seems.

This version follows a sort of middle road, requiring some whisking but not much. Then you bake it. It is not difficult.

You begin by buttering a small 1 and 1/2 quart casserole. Then, in a saucepan, bring 2 and 1/4 cups water to boil. (Precise water measurements are important.) Add 1 teaspoon salt, lower the heat to a simmer, and then add 1 cup of yellow cornmeal, slowly, in a thin stream. I like to use stone ground cornmeal, as very fine-ground meal makes for a pappy, insipid texture. Stir with a wire whisk so that no lumps form.

Continue to cook and stir just for a few more minutes, until the cornmeal is smooth. Then, remove the pan from the heat and stir in a half teaspoon of pepper, 2 Tablespoons of butter, and 1 cup of milk.

When you have stirred the mixture smooth again, add 4 large eggs, well beaten, and mix them in. Then add 1 and 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese and 3 Tablespoons chopped scallions (they really make the dish).

Pour the mixture into the buttered casserole and

bake in a preheated 400 oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

It comes out fluffy, moist, crunchy, rich, and piquant with onion. Savoring the Seasons recommends it as a main dish accompanied by a salad, or as a side dish with ham. It also goes well with tomato soup, or might perhaps take the place of a corn bread with a meal of fried chicken or barbecued ribs.

The wine? I would guess that almost anything, except anything sweet, would do justice to this American-Italo-Scandinavian-French --and really utterly simple and humble -- dish. A jug wine from the bottom shelf of your grocery store might be just perfect.

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