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.

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Zen and the Art of Seaweed Salad

Chris has been in Germany for four weeks, and I really thought I was going to get more work done. Alas, with a full time work schedule and a giant chunk of my day devoured by my commute, I get home with two hours to myself before bedtime. My weekends are booked with laundry, grocery shopping and housekeeping duties. I miss having a partner to help out around the house.

I’ve begun to realize that I spend most of my time running around, worrying about what needs to get done. I think that can be said for most Americans. The very American concept of “efficiency” demands more of people for less in return. I don’t consider myself a “spiritual” person, but throughout my life I have found comfort in Buddhist philosophy and thought. I find particularly poignant the Buddhist emphasis on “mindfulness,” or the importance of awareness in the present moment. How often do we stop and really think about our existence, or our place in the world?

My most meditative moments tend to happen when I’m cooking. There’s something to be said for that. Food is more than nourishment, it is an intrinsic part of being. Which is why I prefer foods that are close to their origins, prepared simply and true to their being. Obviously that doesn’t mean that I limit myself to raw vegetables, or eliminate all flavor enhancing seasonings, but I aim for simplicity. And I’m finding that when I pay attention to the nature of the food I’m preparing, my meals are healthier. When I eat vegetables with the intention of tasting the vegetables and not dousing them in butter or cheese or salt, the outcome is a healthful, meaningful meal.

I personally think it would serve our best interest to meditate over our meals and really think about what we put in our bodies. We live in a culture where everything needs to be done faster, where a meal comes from a box or a microwave, where cheaper is considered better. What would happen if we all took five or ten minutes to sit in front of our dinner and ask, “How will this meal nurture me?” People work to own a bigger home, a bigger car, a lifestyle of more. What would happen if we said, “I want less?”

Mindful Seaweed Salad
1-2 cups dried Arame seaweed
1 small carrot, peeled and grated
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp ginger (powdered or fresh)
1/2 tsp ume plume vinegar
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
Sesame seeds to taste

Arame has a wonderfully mild flavor, it tastes of the sea without being strongly flavored like nori. It also has a firm texture, almost
like al dente pasta. Like all sea vegetables, arame is naturally high in iodine, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, and vitamin A. It is a truly nurturing food.
To make this salad, boil the arame for 10mins. Drain and set aside to cool, or plunge into an ice bath.
Toss the arame with the remaining ingredients. Ume plum vinegar is not a true vinegar, its the brine from umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum). Umeboshi are a common
Japanese snack food, they are extremely high in sodium but are a good source of probiotics.

I recommend eating this with a hot cup of green tea while reading the Lotus Sutra.