You say cornmeal, I say polenta but, no matter what you call it this grainy flour produced from ground corn is a versatile cooking ingredient. Native American Indians ground maize to bake rustic bread and likewise the Italians since Roman times. Polenta, as it is referred to in Italy is simply ground maize or cornmeal.

Golden yellow polenta is widely available, often as the instant or quick-cook variety and also as a ready prepared paste. In its simplest form, the grain is mixed with liquid and brought to the boil then served hot which is described as ‘wet’ polenta or poured into an oiled dish, allowed to cool then cut into slices or squares which are then fried or grilled.

My preference leans towards the latter. Bring a scant litre of water with half a stock cube added, to the boil. Turn down the heat a little then carefully add 175g of instant polenta, little-by-little, continually stirring until the polenta has absorbed all the water, becomes thick and dense, and falls away from the sides of the pan. Season with freshly ground black pepper and pour onto an oiled dinner plate, smoothing and leave to set. At this stage, if preparing in advance, leave uncovered in the fridge.

When you are ready to serve, slice into 8 wedges, lightly brush with a fruity olive oil and cook on both sides in either a griddle pan or non-stick frying pan, giving a golden crust, then serve laced with a deep emerald, pungent dill pesto: Place a large bunch of dill, discarding the woody stalks, 50g ground almonds, 2 cloves of garlic and 30g grated pecorino or parmesan into the goblet of a blender or using with a hand blender. With the motor running, gradually dribble in 150ml of basil infused olive oil. The sauce should be well emulsified, to which seasoning is then sprinkled.

Added to cakes, polenta gives a pleasant crumbly, gritty texture. It is also a delicious coating for chicken or salmon as well as being the vital constituent of the classic American side dish – cornbread. There are probably as many recipe variations for this as there are regions of America and Americans who inhabit them, but this particular version was mailed to me from New Zealand. Jane is a true Brit but left these shores on the arm of a handsome husband. A fellow traveller, her stories interesting and may be followed on her own blog, Sparrow Chatter. Jane discovered this simple recipe for Double Corn Bread in "The Jewish Holiday Cookbook" by Gloria Kaufner Greene and goes on to say,

“It is so delicious and would be useful as a supper dish - we just ate it with cheese and olives and half of it is left over for tomorrow to eat with chilli con carne.”

Jane’s previous recipe, Healthy Brunch Muffins was a huge success in our home so with a few personal adaptations, here is Double Corn Bread:

Double Corn Bread

(9 pieces)

  • 240g fine polenta
  • 25g plain white flour, preferably unbleached
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • pinch of sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
  • ½ tsp. smoked paprika
  • 2 large or 3 medium eggs
  • 60ml vegetable oil
  • 300g can of sweet corn, blitzed with a hand blender
  • 2 tbsp water

Preheat the oven to 200c and base line a square cake tin

1. In a medium size bowl, combine the polenta, flour, baking powder, seasoning and paprika. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs, oil, blitzed corn and water, stirring only until completely combined. Pour into a greased base lined 18cm square cake tin.

2. Bake the corn bread in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until firm and a skewer comes out clean.

Cool in the tin for 5 minutes or so, before cutting into 9 large squares. Best served and eaten the same day, but it may be reheated.