Grain, Elevated: Cornmeal goes from humble to high-end

The average home cook tends to use a 4-pound bag of cornmeal only for baking corn bread (or is everyone buying Jiffy now?) or for dusting a pizza stone to lend density and texture to the crust (and to make peeling it off that much easier). But there’s much more to love. Cornmeal is what you need for an occasional grits breakfast, a hearty plate of rustic, peasant-inspired polenta or nsima, a workaday African porridge, but these just make starting points for culinary adventures that can be far from plebian.

Cornmeal’s superb as a batter coating, for example. This fall, Molly Brady at Local Harvest Café and Catering rolled out delicious brussels sprouts by coating them in a beer-and-wheat flour batter seasoned with spices, then dredging them in stone-ground yellow cornmeal. Rather than fry them, Brady took the wholesome route and roasted the sprouts until they turned a crispy, golden brown.

At times, however, our fancy for fried food takes precedence over health concerns, and cornmeal’s just the thing for achieving the perfect crunch. Tim Grandinetti, executive chef at Overlook Farm in Clarksville, offers a playful take on the classic corn dog. Poach king-size shrimp in butter, roll them in yellow cornmeal and fry to a golden crisp. Serve the shrimp with a spicy-sweet roasted red-pepper jelly, and you’re far removed from concession-stand fare.

And Grandinetti doesn’t stop with the shrimp – he also lets loose his culinary creativity on starters, entrées and sweet finishes that transform the oft-overlooked cornmeal into a standout pantry player.

Take that perfect protein, the egg. Fried or poached? Grandinetti’s flash-fried cornmeal-encrusted poached duck egg lets you enjoy a bit of both. Served atop pecorino-laced fettuccine with wilted mustard greens and a roasted-beet garnish, this dish is so simple and seasonally spot-on that many home cooks may wonder why they themselves never thought of it. His tip: Avoid turning the farm-fresh egg into a yolky mess by following his directions to “very, very carefully” encrust it with cornmeal.

Cornmeal may seem too grainy for something wet and wobbly like flan, but Grandinetti’s truffle and corn flan is surprisingly smooth, particularly since it uses a standard medium-grind meal. The secret? “Soaking the cornmeal in the heavy cream gives it the silky texture,” said Grandinetti. Serve the ramekin-molded flans atop a pool of sautéed wild mushrooms bobbing in their own deep, savory juices, and your dinner guests may beg for more rolls to sop it all up.

Dessert-lovers should savor Grandinetti’s sweet-corn crème brûlée spiced with saffron and swirled with a rich blueberry sauce scented with lavender. Even more winning is that most classic of cakes: a pineapple upside-downer that gives a facelift to honest, homey food. Its cornmeal crust lends body and complexity without being dry or dense. Grandinetti bakes the cinnamon- and clove-scented cake in a cast-iron skillet. “I love working in cast iron because of its conductivity and its even distribution of heat,” remarked Grandinetti, adding that the well-seasoned pan also plays a role. “Three generations of cooks go into that specific pan. You can feel and taste the love.”

Cornmeal and cast iron do feel like family. They’re both sturdy and reliable, and in an age of deluxe pans and premixed or instant-cook grains, cornmeal and cast iron appeal to back-to-basics scratch-cooking fans.

During tough times, cornmeal’s a go-to grain. No eggs? No oil? You can still whip up a batch of barebones Kentucky corn bread. And even in a well-stocked kitchen, this poor man’s grain, tucked somewhere amid bags of flour, rice, barley and buckwheat, can be the key ingredient for turning a meal into something memorable.

THE NITTY-GRITTY ON CORNMEAL

Cornmeal is ground from the whole kernel of white, yellow or blue corn. Yellow cornmeal is sold in different grinds – coarse, medium and fine. White or blue cornmeal is typically available only in a medium grind.

Coarse grind
Lends corn flavor plus added texture to breads. Used to make tamales or old-fashioned porridge.

Fine grind
Substitute 1 to 2 cups for all-purpose flour in bread recipes. Also good for preparing pans for baking.

Blue cornmeal
Used to make eye-catching tortillas and other Southwest-inspired dishes. Blue cornmeal is sweeter and nuttier than yellow or white varieties.

Medium grind
The most common cornmeal grind. Typically used for baking corn bread, a medium grind is also versatile enough for everyday cornmeal applications.