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Kernels of Truth About Cornmeal

I was in the third grade when my recipe collection began to grow — from one to two. I had mastered peanut butter candy the year before and now I was moving on to Indian pudding.

It was just before Thanksgiving, and my class was studying American Indians. We were given a recipe for traditional Indian pudding, which I brought home and got my mother to help me make. My early interest in cooking was, I suppose, a clue that I'd become a chef. My discovery of Indian pudding was certainly my awakening to the wonders of cornmeal.

Indian pudding is a mixture of cornmeal, milk and molasses that's typically baked. Despite its name, Indian pudding didn't originate with the Indians (although they most likely had a similar dish); instead, it seems to be a version of hasty pudding, which English settlers made with wheat and sometimes oats. When they substituted the Indian grain (corn), they called it Indian pudding.

Like all grains, corn kernels can survive a long time as potential seeds or tomorrow's dinner. The huge, dried kernels will crack your teeth, so for use in cooking, dried corn is usually ground first. The kernel also can be soaked in lye (wood ashes, traditionally) to make hominy, but this process takes several days, so it wasn't always an option. But you can use ground corn immediately for tortillas, cornbread or tamales. I add cornmeal to chili to thicken it.

Or you can go for its real splendor and make mush, which is what you get when you mix a ground grain with a liquid. It may sound horrible, but it actually can be sublime. Polenta, Indian pudding and grits, for example, are all forms of cornmeal mush. Made well, all are delicious.

Cornmeal can range from a fine flour to a grind as coarse as Kosher salt. Although food cognoscenti love to talk about stone-ground cornmeal — meaning cornmeal ground between stone wheels at a grist mill — I can't really detect any difference in flavor from corn that is ground using more modern equipment. Most grocery stores sell corn flour (usually called cornmeal) and grits. To find other grinds, check at Latino specialty markets.

Italian polenta is the most cosmopolitan form of mush and is best when made with a slightly coarse meal with grains about the size of table salt. This gives it some body and a little bite that corn flour doesn't provide. The Italians prefer yellow cornmeal, but white cornmeal works just as well. Polenta is typically made on the stovetop and can be as simple as cornmeal cooked with some sort of broth or stock, or can include sauteed vegetables and cheese.

Grits are made with an even coarser grind (again, think Kosher salt). Southerners tend to prefer white cornmeal for grits, although as with polenta, the color doesn't really matter. Grits may be simply ground corn or they may be hominy grits. In the latter case, the kernels are soaked in lye first (making hominy) then dried before grinding. The lye treatment removes the corn bran and also changes the chemistry of the corn making its niacin (one of the B vitamins) more digestible.

Although instant grits and instant polenta are available, making them from scratch isn't difficult and the flavor is definitely richer. Take the easy way out, and you'll never fully appreciate the wonders of this most American grain.

My mother tells me I was the only one infatuated with the recipe for Indian pudding I brought home when I was 9. But it was the beginning of a lifelong search for the best American foods, a search that has led me down many culinary paths and — perhaps inevitably — back to Indian pudding.

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Kevin Weeks