Sometimes I think that I lived a former life as a Southerner. How else can I explain my love for pimento cheese, fried chicken, okra, shell beans and biscuits? How else can I justify the strong cravings I get for fried peach pies, a delicacy I only enjoyed once at a joint in Nebraska? Why else would I spoon up grits with my runny eggs?
Well, I've got an explanation for that one. I'm Italian. Somewhere, buried deep in my DNA lies a prediliction for cooked cornmeal that is culturally non-specific. Call it grits, call it polenta, call it mush--it's all the same animal. Along with buttered baked potatoes, grits are the comfort food I turn to when I'm tired, sick, hungover or cold. I like my mush on the softer side, long cooked in a good pot so the edges get a little crispy, then garnished with a flurry of freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. I like it under things, too--beneath some braised brisket or short ribs, under slow-cooked rapini greens and sausage, nestled beside poached eggs with some crispy strips of bacon poking out here and there. But I think I like it best in a bowl by itself, so steaming hot that you have to hold the first bite in your mouth for a minute before swallowing, regretting being so greedy.
Like a lot of good things in life, polenta takes time. Though the demons of convenience have delivered us quick-cooking polenta, nothing compares to a big pot of good mush that has cooked for an hour or more over low heat. Quality is important, too. Cornmeal is cheap stuff, so it's worth paying a few more dollars to get cornmeal that has been stone-ground, perhaps at a little mill in the American South, or maybe in the North of Italy.
I especially like the stone-ground organic cornmeal from Anson Mills, in Charleston, South Carolina (www.ansonmills.com) and the cornmeal (choose from white or yellow, fine or coarse) produced by Mulino Marino, in the Langhe region of Italy. Their product, which is also organic, can be ordered online from Formaggio Kitchen (www.formaggiokitchen.com). Cornmeal mush is perfect winter food--so get cooking!