Corn for the Poor

I recently discovered polenta.

Although largely vegetarian, I tend to steer clear of starchy vegetables and in particular, corn. I’ve been influenced by knowledge of the corrupt corn industry (for evidence of this, watch “King Corn”), along with knowing that corn has a presence in practically every processed food in America. The enormous subsidies on corn make it cheap and plentiful, and the yellow stuff has been pinpointed as playing a central role in America’s ongoing obesity crisis.

Beyond nutrition and politics, my problem also concerns flavor. I don’t really like the way corn tastes. Well, let me re-phrase that and say, I don’t like the way un-nixtamalized corn tastes. You see, corn has some good nutrients, like amino acids, but they’re bound up and indigestible unless processed with an alkali (typically in the form of lime or wood ash). The native peoples of the Americas learned to process the corn in order to make the amino acids available for digestion. This processing is known as nixtamalization. Nixtamalized corn foods like hominy, and masa (used in tortillas and tamales) have a nutty, savory flavor and provide the vital protein necessary to nutrition.

"Las Tortilleras": women making tortillas, 1836. Mexico Hand-colored lithograph. Source = Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la partie la plus intéressante du Mexique par C. Nebel, Architecte. 50 Planches Lithographiées avec texte

Now for a little history lesson:

The European colonists had no understanding of nixtamalization, as it wasn’t necessary for the dominant European staple grain, wheat. So they ate mostly un-nixtamalized corn, and distributed the corn throughout Europe and Africa. The widespread use of unprocessed corn eventually led to protein deficiency in poverty stricken nations. Italy was one of those unfortunate countries. Modeled on the classic gruels that fed the masses since before the reign of the Roman empire, corn polenta lacks the vital amino acid niacin. Niacin deficiency thus leads to protein deficiency diseases, such as pellagra. Polenta was a poor person’s food and it was typically eaten to the exclusion of more expensive foods, like meat.

Unfortunately, corn-based foods are still eaten by the poverty stricken resulting in malnourishment. In the U.S. corn is phenomenally cheaper than most other grains, and the lower cost leads to higher consumption levels. While most people in America consume meat and dairy in excess, which provides the niacin lacking in corn, the over-consumption of carbohydrate heavy corn still poses significant risks to poor families in the form of increased diabetes and obesity.

As part of a balanced diet, polenta can be a cheap, filling and relatively healthy meal option. My own tight budget has led me to find recipes with more bang for my buck and polenta is incredibly dynamic in this respect. Accompanying polenta with a protein (either meat, dairy or vegetable) solves the niacin deficiency problem, just make sure to eat it on occasion rather than relying on it as a major source of sustenance. You can enjoy polenta as a thick gruel or chill the polenta, cut and pan sear when ready to serve. It freezes well and one cup can easily feed four people.

Sundried Tomato Polenta
1 cup polenta
2 1/2 cups water, stock, milk or soy milk
1 tblsp olive oil or butter
1 shallot chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes sliced
1/4 cup scallions (green onions) chopped
1 Tblsp basil
2 Tblsp parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

In a four quart pot add oil/butter, garlic, and shallots and sweat until tender crisp (about 2-3mins). Add water. Bring water to a boil. Slowly pour in polenta while whisking to avoid clumps. The polenta will thicken pretty quickly. Add sundried tomatoes, scallions, basil, parmesan and salt and pepper. Continue stirring, and cook until desired consistency. 10-15mins. Remove. You can serve immediately or fill a grease lined pan, chill and cut and serve when needed.

I have to say, even if the nutritional profile isn’t so great, this polenta turned out amazingly good. There are endless possibilities for add-ins and cooking methods. Polenta can be oven baked, cooked with cream for a fattier meal or even sweetened for a dessert. It’s great for breakfast with marinara or with mushrooms, and it makes a fun appetizer or finger food at parties.

I consider myself on the lower end of the income spectrum, but it’s still possible to eat healthy, delicious meals.